There’s been much controversy created around an incident in the Kings Norton area of Birmingham where a woman has allegedly been arrested for the crime of praying silently in her head. As is often the case, the details suggest a situation that is a little more complex.
You can watch the actual arrest here.
You can also read an article here, where Isabel Vaughan-Spruce explains what is at stake in terms of the clinic. This is not just about one clinic either. Public Space Protection Orders are being used by Local Authorities across the country. There are issues about freedom and the right to protest more general to the specific issue here.
The complexities are as follows. First, this is not a simple case of one person turning up on their own on one occasion and praying. This is about a planned campaign over a period of time. Secondly, the specific issue is that this contravened a PSPO put in place by the Local Authority. The 2014 Act gave Local Authorities to set up these exclusion zones in order to protect people living in local neighbourhoods from disruption and aggravation. Local Authorities had to determine both that the actions of those subject to the order were unreasonable and that the measures taken were justifiable. Guidance was given on what was justifiable. I personally have questions about whether or not the specific PSPO in this instance and the measures included are proportionate. Have a look and judge for yourself.
However, from this, we can make three observations about the arrest itself. The police were acting in line with their public duties. I don’t think they were overzealous on this occasion. If there is a problem here, then it lies with the Local Authority’s application of the Law and this is the thing that will be being challenged at the moment. Furthermore, I note that they don’t appear heavy handed here. My only quibble is as to whether or not they were clear in that the choice for Isabel was not between coming with them or not coming with them but coming with them on a voluntary or involuntary basis. I would also gently suggest that it is disappointing that Vaughan-Spruce seems diffident rather than using the opportunity to proactively explain why she is praying.
This brings us to the crux of the matter. A woman was not arrested for praying but rather for breaching a PSPO. However, that PSPO and indeed a number of other examples of law have been putting both the freedom to protest and the freedom to worship, pray, offer pastoral care etc at risk and that should be a concern to us.
Now, I disagree with those who are dismissive about the level of intimidation that might be involved in someone standing silently or even approaching people offering to pray or to offer counsel. Whilst you and I might not consider this intimidatory for us, to a vulnerable person it could be experienced differently. We do have to remember that whilst as Christians, we are concerned about the vulnerable child in the womb, we are also concerned for vulnerable women too and many of those attending abortion clinics may fall into that category due to experience of abuse, rape, etc.
This does not mean that freedoms should be restricted. My view is that as far as possible, people should be free to express their views, to protest and, yes, to cause offence to others. Legislators are not best placed to second guess subjective emotional reactions. We are to a significant extent dependent upon each other to behave reasonably. This does mean that although we may either have rights or may legitimately expect to have them that we should not always insist on using them.
There is a further consideration for Christians. I fear that when people use prayer to protest then they are weaponizing worship. This is not the purpose of prayer. We should not cheapen it to being a lever in a political dispute. Prayer is more precious than that. It is about our day to day, up close, intimate relationship with and dependence upon God.
 Noting of course that prayer itself is a weapon in terms of spiritual warfare and I guess there is one incident in the Bible of prayer as protest when Daniel prays. However, using it in a way that draws attention to a political freedom is a different thing.