A Christian preacher has been found guilty of breaching a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) for holding a sign with a verse from the Bible on it outside of an 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 legislation prohibits any ‘act of disapproval’ of abortion within the ‘buffer zone’, which includes praying and reading from the Bible.
The sign Mr Green held 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.
Handing down judgment today at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court in West London, District Judge Kathryn Verghis said: “The extract of the Psalm mentioning ‘my mother’s womb’…was an act of protest of abortion. There were less controversial verses you could have chosen to display. I can come to no other conclusion that [the verse] was an act of disapproval [of abortion services].. an act prohibited [by the PSPO].
Whilst admitting that the PSPO was “a significant interference” of Mr Green’s rights under articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention, she said those rights had to be weighed against individuals accessing abortion services.
She concluded that, Mr Green’s: “Protest was peaceful…but your actions were not proportionate….I find you guilty as summoned.”
Turning to sentencing, Mr Green’s lawyer said as a matter of principle that Mr Green would not pay any financial penalty, which could ultimately result in a prison sentence. The judge imposed a 1 year conditional discharge, the victim surcharge of £26 and a costs order of £2,400.
‘I will appeal and will no pay fine’
Mr Green, who is being supported by the Christian Legal Centre, said he will appeal the conviction to the Crown Court, saying: “As a Christian I should be able to preach freely all over the land. Psalm 139 is about how we all belong to God from conception.
“Buffer zones and this conviction is a direct attack on the Bible and free speech, which is being licenced by the state. I have no choice but to continue 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 is deeply draconian and discriminatory against Christians.
“If it is now a criminal offence to hold a sign with a verse from Psalm 139 on it in a London street, then none of us is free.’
“I have been ordered to pay costs, frankly I would rather go to prison than pay this to the state that has banned the Bible.”
It is believed that the last time something like this happened in this country was in 1670. The Quakers William Penn and William Meade were arrested and put on trial for a silent religious act in a public street for an apparent contravention of an Act of Parliament that prohibited gatherings of more than 5 people.
Their brave stand eventually led to the free speech clause of the Pennsylvania and in due course, the American constitution.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “Psalm 139 is one of the most well known and beautiful passages in the Bible which points to the hope and comfort of each person being wonderfully made and looked after by God.
“Hearing a judge say that verses from Psalm 139 are an ‘act of protest’ and to be punished is devastating.
“The effect of the PSPO is to create an area where Bible verses and prayer are outlawed
“We will stand with Mr Green as he seeks justice in this case.”
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.’
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.”
Find out more about Stephen Green