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Catholic Union says right to prayer must be respected

The Catholic Union has said that private prayer should never be seen as unlawful as part of a Home Office consultation on the introduction of buffer zones around abortion clinics.

The Public Order Act 2023 includes the new offence of “interference with access to or provision of abortion services.” The measure was introduced by backbench MPs in the House of Commons and mandates the creation of “safe access zones” around abortion facilities.

The Home Office is now consulting on guidance for the police and other authorities on the practical implication of this new law and its limits. Responding to the consultation, which closed this week, the Catholic Union said that any new guidance must make it clear that “individual, private prayer should never be considered an offence in and of itself”.

There have already been cases of people questioned and arrested near abortion clinics in which the main offence has been silent prayer. These incidents have happened where Public Space Protection Orders have been used by local authorities under existing legislation.

The Catholic Union has warned that the situation could get worse with the introduction of mandatory “safe access zones” around abortion clinics in England and Wales, and has called for the guidance to be tightened before it is published later this year.

Catholic Union Director, Nigel Parker, comments: “The introduction of this new law is extremely regrettable. The Catholic Union argued at the time that it was not necessary and risked infringing fundamental human rights around freedom of thought and religion. While this new guidance is not statutory, it will be used by the police and others in determining what counts as criminal behaviour. The guidance therefore needs to make it abundantly clear that individual, private prayer should never be considered an offence in and of itself. If we lose the right to pray, then we lose the right to conscience. If we lose the right to conscience, then we lose the right to thought. And if we lose the right to thought, then we lose everything.”