This Friday at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court, a Christian preacher and campaigner faces potentially being sent to prison for six months for holding a sign with a verse from the Bible’s renowned Psalm 139 on it within a ‘buffer zone’ outside of a London abortion clinic.
Stephen Green, 72, from South Wales, was prosecuted by Ealing Council under section 67 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 for holding the sign outside of an MSI Reproductive Choices clinic in Mattock Lane, West London, on 6 February 2023.
The sign said: ‘Psalm 139:13 For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.’
Psalm 139 is arguably one of the most famous and well-known pieces of scripture in the Bible.
During the incident, Mr Green, who is being supported by the Christian Legal Centre, was alleged to have broken a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), which, including prayer, criminalises “protesting, namely engaging in an act of approval/disapproval, with respect to issues related to abortion services”.
The PSPO, put in place by Ealing Council in April 2018, was the first ‘buffer zone’ surrounding an abortion clinic to be introduced in the UK.
PSPO legislation is usually reserved for anti-social behaviour such as dog fouling, littering and alcohol and drug misuse.
In evidence provided to the police, the clinic staff member who reported Mr Green said, ‘the incident lasted an hour’ and that one of the ‘suspects’ was ‘holding a bible in his hand which he appeared to be reading aloud from.’
The staff member added: ‘I received a text message from the police saying they were treating it as an emergency.’
Mr Green, who is director of campaign group Christian Voice, left the area before the police arrived.
Nonetheless, staff at the clinic relayed to the police what had happened and seven months after the event, Mr Green received a prosecution notice from Ealing Council.
The charge sheet provided to Mr Green, says:
‘On 6th February 2023, you did something you were prohibited from doing in an area which is within the Mattock Lane Safe Zone Public Spaces Protection Order outside the MSI Reproductive Choices Clinic in that you:
‘a) Protested by engaging in an act of disapproval or attempted act of act of disapproval with respect to issues related to abortion services, by written means in that you were holding a large sign displaying the text ‘Psalm 139:13 For thou hast possessed me (sic) reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb’
‘b) Had text displayed on a large sign namely ‘‘Psalm 139:13 For thou hast possessed me (sic) reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb’ relating directly or indirectly to the termination of pregnancy.
‘Contrary to Section 67 (1) (a) Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.’
If found guilty under section 67 at the hearing in Uxbridge this week, Mr Green could be sent to prison for six months and/or fined £1,000.
In January 2023, following an amendment to the Public Order Bill, ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics were brought in nationally.
Politicians and campaigners have decried the introduction of the zones as deeply draconian measures that criminalise free speech and prevent vulnerable women from access to alternatives to abortion.
This appears to have led the government to now publish and consult the public on its draft guidance for the zones where it says it is “seeking views and clarity”.
The government’s draft guidance acknowledges that buffer zones must be interpreted in line with human rights, including the right to manifest religious beliefs, the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of assembly and association:
“Silent prayer, being the engagement of the mind and thought in prayer towards God, is protected as an absolute right under the Human Rights Act 1998 and should not, on its own, be considered to be an offence under any circumstances.”
“Motionless, unintrusive conduct should not, on its own, be treated as an offence. The mere presence of someone in a Safe Access Zone with no indication they are going to engage with anyone accessing, providing or facilitating abortion services should never attract police action.”
“…it is important that police officers dealing with suspected incidents of breaching section 9 have the appropriate knowledge of human rights. Officers involved in suspected breaches of section 9 should have had appropriate training in balancing the rights protected under the European Convention in Human Rights.”
Respond to the consultation by Monday 22 January at 11:59pm.
‘Attack on the Bible’
Ahead of the hearing, Mr Green, said: “I was deeply shocked to receive the summons from Ealing Council.
“I see this prosecution as an attack on the Bible and free speech. I am determined to defend myself and fight for justice.
“People are right to be concerned about the buffer zone legislation. To bar Christian witness and to control what people can say in an area is draconian and anti-Christian.
“There is a huge principle at stake here. If we are not free to hold a sign with a verse from Psalm 139 on it in a London street, then none of us is free.”
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “It is worrying that a man in his 70s holding a sign with a Bible verse on it is now being treated as an ‘emergency’ situation by the police.
“Buffer zones are an oppressive part of the current culture which force consent and silence dissent.
“The effect of the PSPO is to criminalise any act of disapproval of abortion and to create an area where no discussion or even prayer relating to abortion, is permitted.
“There have now been over 10 million abortions in the UK since abortion was legalised in 1967. That is a staggering number. That is almost twice the population of Scotland and more than the entire population of London. Millions of people would be alive today if abortion had not been legalised.
“Instead of lamenting this loss of life we are industrialising it, making it ever easier to obtain abortion effectively on demand, and now we are criminalising dissent.
“We will stand with Mr Green as he seeks justice in this case.”