The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled this week the Northern Irish government can create censorship zones banning pro-life demonstrations, including prayers, within a 328-foot perimeter outside of any abortion facility across the region.
The high court was asked to review the validity of Northern Ireland's ban on "direct" and "indirect" pro-life "influence" within 100 meters (328 feet) of abortion clinics.
As a result, holding a sign, distributing leaflets, even talking to a woman to offer her help, or simply praying silently outside of an abortion clinic in Northern Ireland will now be a crime. Those who trespass and are convicted could receive a fine of up to £2500. ($3,060 in U.S. dollars)
The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) bill was adopted in the Northern Irish Assembly last March.
In a press release, Alliance Defending Freedom UK Legal Counsel Jeremiah Igunnubole responded to the ruling, saying: "Peaceful presence, mere conversation, quiet or silent prayer – these activities should never be criminalized in a democratic society like the UK."
"We are of course disappointed to see today's ruling from the Supreme Court, which fails to protect the basic freedoms to pray or to offer help to women who may want to know about practical support available to avoid abortion," Igunnubole said.
"The criminalization of any kind of 'influencing' is vague, uncertain and reduces the threshold of criminality to an impermissibly low level. Northern Ireland's broadly drafted law hands arbitrary power to police officers, with the inevitable consequence being the unjust arrest and prosecution of those expressing pro-life views, even though such views are protected under domestic and international human rights law," he continued.
The Northern Ireland pro-life group Precious Life condemned the high court's ruling as "a travesty of justice," but at the same time, promised to redouble its efforts in public awareness campaigns to expose the horrific reality of what abortion does to an innocent baby in the womb.
"The judges in the Supreme Court ruled this is appropriate and justifiable, even though it breaches rights of freedom of speech and assembly protected by the European Convention on Human Rights," the group said.
Precious Life's legal team will be appealing the ruling in the European Court of Human Rights.
As CBN News reported on Dec. 6, a U.K. pro-life volunteer last month took legal action against a city ordinance that creates similar censorship zones around abortion clinics, making it illegal for pro-life activists to speak, pray, or assist women looking for alternative options.
Livia Tossici-Bolt, a former clinical scientist and leader of 40 Days for Life Bournemouth, is pursuing a statutory review of the Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) which was passed in October by the Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole city councils in England.
She filed a complaint through the ADF UK against the authorities in November for breaching her freedom to pray on a public street.
Tossici-Bolt believes the council did not have the power to make the PSPO because officials wrongly sought to prohibit peaceful and lawful behavior.
PSPOs are usually reserved for tackling anti-social behavior such as drug and alcohol abuse and dangerous dogs, according to the Christian Legal Centre. But this ordinance will specifically prohibit "vigils where members audibly pray, recite scripture" near a clinic.
There has been no indication of the future of Tossici-Bolt's case since the U.K.'s Supreme Court ruling on the Northern Irish law.
However, the ADF UK noted in a press release that the zones have already been imposed in five towns by local councils.
Parliament Considering Creation of Censorship Zones in England and Wales
The British Parliament is also considering legislation to introduce censorship zones in England and Wales. Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill, currently under parliamentary debate, would prohibit pro-life volunteers from "influencing", "advising", "persuading", "informing", "occupying space" or even "expressing opinion" within the vicinity of an abortion clinic.
Violators could face up to two years in prison.
Clause 9 drew criticism from members of the House of Lords, including Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Beith, who deemed the clause "the most profound restriction on free speech I have ever seen in any UK legislation."
The Scottish government has also shown support for a measure similar to the Northern Ireland bill to introduce censorship zones around abortion facilities across Scotland.
During a Supreme Court hearing there last July, government lawyers made it clear they would include prayer within the scope of "influencing" in their legislation. The Lord Advocate also testified that even silent prayer could cause "psychological damage."
As CBN News reported last month, a person caught praying outside an abortion clinic in England can now face up to six months in prison–even if they pray silently.
And in a 297-110 vote, members of Parliament backed an amendment to the Government's Public Order Bill that would actually outlaw the offering of prayer and advice to women outside of abortion clinics.