More than 34,000 people have signed a petition after a woman was arrested on a UK street while 'praying silently in her head'.
Charity volunteer Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, 45, was standing quietly on a pavement in Birmingham when she was approached, questioned and subsequently arrested by police.
Officers had received complaints from an onlooker who suspected she was praying. She was not holding a sign or making any visible form of protest.
An online petition calls for Home Secretary Suella Braverman to: “intervene and demand that all charges against Isabel Vaughan-Spruce are dropped".
In a chilling video which captured the exchange between Vaughan-Spruce and police, viewed 1.5 million times on Twitter, a police officer can be seen asking: “What are you here for today?”
Vaughan-Spruce responded: “I’m just standing here.”
The police officer asked, ‘Are you praying?,’ to which Vaughan-Spruce said, ‘I might be praying in my head’.
She was then arrested on suspicion of ‘failing to comply’ with a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), in what has been branded by critics as a ‘thoughtcrime’.
Arrested for praying: Isabel Vaughan-Spruce said she was appalled PA
Vaughan-Spruce was formally arrested for breaking a Public Space Protection Order around the BPAS Robert facility in Kings Norton, an abortion clinic which has been the target for pro-life protestors in the past. She has been charged with breaching the order on four different occasions.
But the video has sparked outrage online. GB News presenter Laurence Fox re-tweeted the clip of the arrest and said: “Please tell me this is a well made fake?”
Reform Party leader Richard Tice said: "The police need to explain themselves urgently."
Mumford and Sons co-founder and Spectator podcast host Winston Marshall said: “Arrested for praying, in her head. In England. In 2022.”
And GB News presenter Calvin Robinson said: “No one should ever be arrested for silent prayer. Not in the UK, not anywhere. Regardless of your position on abortion, this is wrong.”
A West Midlands Police spokesman said: "Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested on 6 December and subsequently charged on 15 December with four counts of failing to comply with a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO).
"She was bailed to appear at Birmingham Magistrates Court on 2 February 2023.
"The PSPO creates a zone around a specific facility to protect women from harassment by any means if they are seeking a medical procedure or advice at an abortion clinic."
The PSPO, also known as a "buffer zone" came into force in September and was put in place by Birmingham City Council.
It prohibits prayer and protesting, among other activities, within a specified area around the abortion clinic.
Buffer zones have been criticised by both pro-life and pro-choice public figures who have warned about the restrictions they place on personal liberty.
Following her arrest, Vaughan-Spruce said: “It’s abhorrently wrong that I was searched, arrested, interrogated by police and charged simply for praying in the privacy of my own mind. Censorship zones purport to ban harassment, which is already illegal.
“Nobody should ever be subject to harassment. But what I did was the furthest thing from harmful – I was exercising my freedom of thought, my freedom of religion, inside the privacy of my own mind. Nobody should be criminalised for thinking and for praying, in a public space in the UK.”
Vaughan-Spruce is being supported by ADF UK, a faith-based legal organisation. Jeremiah Igunnubole, Legal Counsel for ADF UK said: “It is truly astonishing that the law has granted local authorities such wide and unaccountable discretion, that now even thoughts deemed ‘wrong’ can lead to a humiliating arrest and a criminal charge.
“A mature democracy should be able to differentiate between criminal conduct and the peaceful exercise of constitutionally protected rights.
"Isabel, a woman of good character, and who has tirelessly served her community by providing charitable assistance to vulnerable women and children, has been treated no better than a violent criminal.”
He added: “The recent increase in buffer zone legislation and orders is a watershed moment in our country. We must ask ourselves whether we are a genuinely democratic country committed to protecting the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of speech.”
Vaughan-Spruce is Director of the pro-life organisation UK March for Life. She has volunteered for many years supporting women in crisis pregnancies, and those who have ‘had abortions and are struggling with the consequences of it’.
She said: “My faith is a central part of who I am, so sometimes I’ll stand or walk near an abortion facility and pray about this issue. This is something I’ve done pretty much every week for around the last 20 years of my life. I pray for my friends who have experienced abortion, and for the women who are thinking about going through it themselves.”
The Robert Clinic in Kings Norton, Birmingham, has been targeted by protestors in the past PA
A number of other local councils have imposed buffer zones around abortion clinics which ban prayer. In addition, MPs are currently considering Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill, which would prohibit pro-life individuals from ‘influencing’, ‘advising’, ‘persuading’, ‘informing’, ‘occupying space’ or ‘expressing opinion’ near abortion facilities.
The PSPO around the Kings Norton abortion clinic says the following activities are not allowed: “Protesting, namely engaging in any act of approval or disapproval or attempted act of approval or disapproval, with respect to issues related to abortion services, by any means. This includes but is not limited to graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counselling.”
According to the text of the order, it was put in place to prevent activities ‘that have had, or are likely to have, a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality’. Prayer is considered to be one of those activities.
West Midlands Police and Birmingham City Council have been approached for comment.