A Catholic priest who faced criminal charges for praying for free speech outside an abortion clinic after business hours is the latest to run afoul of a strict buffer zone law in the English city of Birmingham.

“I pray wherever I go, inside my head, for the people around me. How can it be a crime for a priest to pray?” Father Sean Gough, a priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, said in a Feb. 9 statement from the ADF UK legal group.

Gough stood near a closed abortion clinic on Station Road in Birmingham with a sign that said “praying for free speech.” Police officers approached him and at first told him they did not believe he was breaking Birmingham’s public spaces protection order. 

Officials invited him to an interview at the police station where they questioned him about his actions and criminally charged him with “intimidating service users” of the abortion clinic. He faced a second charge related to an “unborn lives matter” sticker on his parked car.

In general, protection orders are intended to stop antisocial behavior. The terms of the Birmingham order bar any acts of approval or disapproval in a “buffer zone” around the clinic. This includes using graphics, verbal or written words, prayer, or counseling. It bars any effort to intimidate or harass, or attempt to intimidate or harass, clinic patients or staff.

The Crown Prosecution Service has dropped the charges against the priest but said the charges could be reinstated. 

Gough, however, intends to seek a clear verdict in court.

“I often pray in my head near the abortion facility, but at the time in question, I was praying for free speech, which is under severe pressure in our country today,” he said. “At all times, I believed my actions to be lawful — freedom of expression, especially when peaceful, is protected in domestic and international law.”

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“It is deeply undemocratic to censor public streets, particularly those spaces where we know that many women have benefitted from peaceful offers of help about services available,” Gough objected.

At least two others have faced charges for violating a buffer zone at an English abortion clinic on Dec. 22, 2022. Isabel Vaughan-Spruce faced charges for silent prayer in the zone around the same Birmingham clinic. Like in Gough’s case, the charges were dropped, but her charges can be reinstated as well. She, too, seeks a court verdict to clarify her legal situation.

Adam Smith-Connor was fined for violating a protection order outside an abortion clinic in the southern coastal town of Bournemouth last November. He told local authorities he was praying for his son, who died in an abortion. Both Vaughan-Spruce and Smith-Connor have the support of ADF UK, which has characterized the buffer zones as “censorship zones.” 

ADF UK said Gough’s case is the first where prayer related to free speech, rather than abortion, faces criminalization.

Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, said the charges against Gough were dropped for “insufficient evidence” but the priest was warned that further evidence could be produced. The attorney said this implied that “the entire grueling process could soon restart from the beginning.”

“This is a clear instance of the process becoming the punishment and creating a chilling effect on freedom of expression in the U.K. — a value that this government, incidentally, had promised to champion in their election manifesto,” Igunnubole said. “Nobody should be criminalized for peaceful activities like praying for the state of free speech in our country or having a simple bumper sticker on their car that expresses a belief that ‘unborn lives matter.’ This case demonstrates the far-reaching and illiberal consequences of so-called ‘buffer zones.’”

Father Sean Gough, a priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, England, stood near a closed abortion clinic on Station Road in Birmingham with a sign that said “praying for free speech.”. Credit: ADF UK
Father Sean Gough, a priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, England, stood near a closed abortion clinic on Station Road in Birmingham with a sign that said “praying for free speech.”. Credit: ADF UK

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Though Gough was not praying about abortion outside the abortion clinic, he said work for the post-abortive ministry Rachel’s Vineyard is a large part of his ministry.

“I don’t judge or condemn those who have had abortions — but volunteer my time to work for their healing,” he said.

For the priest, abortion is a very personal matter.

“It’s an issue that means a lot to me because my mom made a bold choice for life when I was a baby,” he added. “I was conceived in the context of severe violence, and she found the grace and strength to fight for us both. So many people thought she should abort me, but by the grace of God, she didn’t, and we’re both so grateful for that today.” 

The Archdiocese of Birmingham told CNA that Gough is an assistant priest of the archdiocese. 

“He has kept Archbishop Bernard Longley appropriately informed of the matter,” the archdiocese said Feb. 9. “Having received appropriate legal advice and recognizing this is now a matter for the courts, Father Sean, and the archdiocese, await the outcome.”

Several localities in England have implemented buffer zones.

The U.K. Parliament is expected to pass legislation to create buffer zones of about 500 feet around abortion clinics. Those convicted of violating the law could face an unlimited fine, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children reported. 

The Birmingham Archdiocese reiterated the Jan. 27 statement of Bishop John Sherrington, lead bishop for Life Issues for the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. His statement emphasized concerns about current and proposed legislation for buffer zones around abortion clinics.  

Sherrington said many of the terms of the proposal are “problematic for freedom of religion, expression, and association.” He noted the risk that the measures “constitute discrimination and disproportionately have an impact on people of religious faith.” He warned that the measures raise questions about state powers over the individual in a free society.

“All harassment and intimidation of women is to be condemned,” the bishop said. He cited a 2018 Home Office review that said sufficient laws are in place “to protect women from such unacceptable behavior.”