72-year-old preacher faces prison for displaying Bible verse

The legality of abortion buffer zones in the UK similar to those in Australia is set to be challenged with two cases being brought before the courts by Christian Concern.

The first involves a 72-year-old preacher and campaigner Stephen Green, who is facing the possibility of a six-month prison sentence for holding a sign with a bible verse printed on it outside an abortion clinic in London.

Mr Green stood outside an MSI Reproductive Choices clinic in West London, displaying a sign bearing the words of Psalm 139:13: “For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.”

Ealing Council accused Mr Green of violating a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO). The PSPO was established in April 2018, and was the first buffer zone surrounding an abortion clinic to be introduced in the UK.

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’.

Clinic staff called the police, and seven months later, Mr Green received a prosecution notice.

Critics argue that this case represents an infringement on free speech and religious freedom.

In January 2023, “buffer zones” around abortion clinics were introduced nationwide across the UK, sparking outrage from politicians and campaigners who view them as draconian measures that limit free speech and restrict women's access to information about alternatives to abortion. Similar laws exist in all Australian jurisdictions.

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said:

Buffer zones are an oppressive part of the current culture which force consent and silence dissent.

Stephen Green himself sees this prosecution as an attack on both the Bible and free speech:

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.

A related case being brought by Christian Concern and Livia Tossici-Bolt, a former clinical scientist who leads 40 Days for Life Bournemouth, is challenging the validity of an abortion buffer zone surrounding an abortion clinic in Bournemouth.

The buffer zone in question is unique in that it extends to private homes, potentially criminalising individuals for expressing their views even within their own residences if visible from the street.

The parties bringing the action have argued that the Council overstepped its authority in creating the Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) by prohibiting peaceful and lawful activities that shouldn't be characterised as “anti-social”. They have also asserted that the restrictions are disproportionate and infringe on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Ahead of the hearing, Ms Tossici-Bolt said:

By imposing this PSPO, the BCP council is preventing women coerced into abortion from being reached and helped, and denying women and couples in difficult circumstances the possibility of receiving independent information and supportive alternatives to abortion.

We believe what the council has done is unlawful, discriminatory and unethical and we are determined to fight for justice.

The Human Rights Law Alliance considers these laws to be unacceptable government-imposed limits on free speech, especially given that criminal laws already prohibit harassment and violence around abortion clinics.

The High Court of Australia ruled on the legality of these abortion zones in a legal action brought by Kathy Clubb in Victoria and Graham Preston in Tasmania, ultimately finding that the zones did not breach the implied right to freedom of political communication in the Constitution.