Thursday, January 19, 2023

R.I.P. Religious Freedom

“So, are you praying?” asked the British policeman to the woman who had been standing quietly across the street from an abortion business in Birmingham.

“Well, I’m not saying anything.  But, yes, I’m praying in my mind.”

“So, you are praying?” the policeman repeated.

“Well, yes.”

“Then you’ll have to come to the station with us, ma’am.”  And he put Isabel Vaughn-Spruce, a local leader of 40 Days for Life, under arrest.

Tragically, denials of what have historically been the sacred freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and conscience are happening more and more as leftist tyrants and their all-too-willing toadies in the press, schools, business, and government bureaucracies ramp up their intolerance of the ideals of Western civilization, Christianity, and Christians.

We have, of course, been dealing with this sad injustice for awhile now. Bakers, innkeepers, and florists are denied the freedoms of religion and conscience. Coaches cannot pray with their teams (no matter how willing the student/athletes are to do so) and valedictorians are not allowed to mention Jesus to their classmates. Wearing a Christian T-shirt gets you thrown out of the mall, the school, the public library, the company picnic. And on and on. 

Indeed, the arrest of Mrs. Vaughn-Spruce provoked a vivid reminder of a similar situation I encountered a few years ago outside the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.  It was the night before the March for Life and Claire and I were in town with three of our Omaha colleagues for the event.  

But on the night before the March, we had gone to spend a few minutes in prayer outside the U.S. Capitol, the Senate and Congressional offices, and now we were at the Supreme Court.  It was late.  It was very quiet.  There was no one besides the 5 of us on the whole plaza. But just a few seconds into our corporate prayer, one of the Supreme Court police (yes, they’ve got their own) interrupted us and told us that we couldn’t pray there. Though incredulous and angry, I was calm, respectful, and very courteous in my response…as was he. Here’s how it went:

“Officer, thanks for checking on us. But let me ask, did I hear you correctly that we aren’t allowed to pray here?”

“That’s right.”

“Good grief. May I respectfully ask by what authority you make this remarkably un-American demand?”

The Supreme Court policeman was a bit disconcerted.  “Look, I know it doesn’t seem right but they’ve told us not to let crowds gather here or to let anyone do any demonstrating.”

“Officer,” I spoke gently, “are you considering five people a crowd, especially when we’re the only ones in this whole plaza?  And do you really interpret the five of us quietly standing here a demonstration? And I haven’t even mentioned you telling us we can’t pray!”

“I know it doesn’t seem right, sir. But I’m just following orders.”

“Okay, let me ask you this -- when I saw you coming across the plaza, it looked to me like you were already determined to chase us away.  But what if we were simply tourists enjoying the sights of D.C.? Would you have ordered us to leave?”

“No, of course not; that would have been fine.  But I could tell that you were praying by the way you had your heads bowed.”

“Wow; that’s interesting. So, let me get this straight; you’re suggesting that it wasn’t the prayer itself that bothered you. It was seeing us in a posture of prayer.”

“Yes, I guess so.  Because the way you looked, anybody could see that you were praying. And that’s I when I could get in trouble.”

“Got it. But I’ll bet you’ll agree with me that with all the murders and the rapes and the robberies in this city, you’ve got to feel at least a little silly for telling us that praying in this empty place at night is the crime you’re determined to prevent.” He looked kinda’ crestfallen at that and so I followed up quickly, “Look, I’ve got an idea. You and I are not going to settle here tonight the Constitutional legality of our freedom to assembly. And I have no desire to get you or me or any of my friends here in trouble. So, here’s my suggestion.  Why don’t you walk away and leave us alone for another few minutes.  I promise we won’t get on our knees or bow our heads or intertwine our fingers.  We will look just like tourists -- tourists that are simply appreciating the beauty of the Supreme Court lit up at night and thinking about the things it has traditionally stood for…things like, say religious freedom and other stuff!  Then you walk back by here in ten minutes and we will be gone. What do you say?

“I guess that would be okay.  ‘Cause, you know, I don’t want to be a hard-case about all this.  Still, I’m pretty sure that when I walk away, you folks will probably start praying again.”

I smiled.  “But, officer, even if we were so bold to do that, you wouldn’t know.  Nobody would know.  And why? Because you came over here and warned us against assuming a posture of prayer. Mission was accomplished. I promise we won’t do that.  And, like I said, we’ll just be here a few minutes more.  How about it?”

The fellow paused a moment.  “Okay, goodnight, folks.”  He finally walked away and left us to finish our prayers (abstaining from a prayer posture, of course) before we headed back to our hotel. It was a memorable night, for even though we managed to escape penalties for praying in the public square, it was a clear warning of what was coming. And, as I suggested, that incident came back in a rush when I watched the video of Mrs. Vaughn-Spruce’s arrest.  “So, you are praying?  Then you’ll have to come with us.”

My friends, because of the accelerating hatred of the world for God and because the Church has cowardly surrendered so much of her responsibilities to live holy, separated lives as well as to lovingly speak truth into the culture, this is going to keep happening. The powers that be will tell us -- “Sure, it’s fine to have your religion. We will graciously allow that. However, your religion must be a totally private (even secret) thing that finds no expression whatsoever in the public square, the schools, the marketplace, politics, the local library, etc. And, as long as your convictions give way before the ideals (and compulsory orders) of Science, Progress, the State, and the “enlightened elite,” you can feel as many religious feelings as you’d like. ‘Cause, you know, we don’t want to be a hard-case about all this.”  

Lord, have mercy. Help us to hold on tight to a heavenly perspective regarding the trials of living all-out for You. Please be our strength and shield as we pursue godliness in our personal lives and as we undertake the light-bearing responsibilities we have been given as Your ambassadors.

An Important Addendum: A Take from Great Britain

I’ve asked our dear friend and pro-life colleague, Dr. Greg Gardner from Birmingham, to comment on Mrs. Vaughn-Spruce’s arrest and related matters.  His take is of the most profound value – enlightening and challenging and well worth the read.

I’ve been thinking a little about how to put into context the arrest of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce outside the Robert abortion centre in Birmingham for praying silently. It goes back quite a long way. In October 1967 the UK Parliament changed the law on abortion to make it permissible (not legal) to perform an abortion if certain conditions applied. The first abortuary to open its doors in the UK (in 1969) was a place called the ‘Calthorpe Nursing Home’ here in Birmingham. By 2007 it was doing around 10,000 abortions per year and was the largest single abortion provider in the country. The first prayer and pavement counselling that took place outside the Calthorpe was in 1989, kick started by Fr. James Morrow of Scotland. This continued on a weekly basis for many years. The abortion centre was eventually acquired by Marie Stopes International, now known simply as ‘MSI.’ It changed its name from ‘The Calthorpe Nursing Home’ to ‘The Calthorpe Clinic.’ 

Eventually ’40 days for life’ took up the challenge and would have prayer and pavement counselling for 40 days twice per year. Isabel was the local leader for this and was very diligent in organizing rotas, filling in gaps herself, if necessary, despite living a considerable distance away, exhorting people to come out and pray and generally leading from the front. She has been really inspirational. Originally the Calthorpe was open for business 6 days per week, then people began to notice that there would be some days when it would be closed and this happened more frequently. Finally, it closed its doors for good in 2019. This left only one abortion provider in Birmingham called ‘The Robert Clinic’ named after an abortionist. It is owned now by the largest National Abortion Provider called BPAS (The British Pregnancy Advisory Service). 

After the closure of the Calthorpe, 40 days for life turned its attention to The Robert clinic and have had twice yearly prayer vigils there since 2019. These vigils which normally involve two, or maybe three people at most are typically attended by Catholics praying the rosary or other Catholic prayers, punctuated by offers of information to women or couples attending an appointment at the Robert Clinic. Since the place is located in a residential area, with houses adjacent and opposite, the prayer vigil can be seen and sometimes heard by local residents if they are walking past. Some of the residents have been verbally abusive and occasionally violent although others have been supportive. There are now several women who have come out in public saying that their baby was saved from abortion because of the presence of pro-lifers at the Robert Clinic and similar places. Isabel has held in her arms babies saved from abortion at the last minute. False accusations of intimidation have been circulated by local residents and subsequently spread by the local socialist MP.

In response to complaints by local residents and the police who get fed up with having to answer calls (by both sides) the local council in Birmingham decided to launch an online ‘consultation’ (see attached). The local police are funded by the local council so any perceived unnecessary increase in police activity is seen unfavourably. As you can see from the consultation, many of the questions are biased. For example, the question over whether there should be a bubble zone at all was not asked. Rather, it was assumed that they were going ahead with it and the questions were about whether the proposed area was too large/too small etc. I’m also attaching a letter written to local residents by Isabel and some of my responses to the consultation.

I attended a meeting in May with two representatives from the local council along with Isabel, her colleague Ben from ‘March for Life,’ a lawyer called Michael Phillips from the Christian Legal Centre and a local priest. The bias was plain. There was also a public meeting a couple of weeks later where the sentiments of the council representatives were clearly on display. At one point one of their team started to applaud something a resident was saying against ’40 Days for Life’ and then had to stop himself. The local ordinance was duly passed and so prevented any prayer and pavement counselling during the autumn campaign in October and November. There is however a Catholic church about 200 yards away at the other end of the road which is outside the bubble zone so people have been gathering to pray in the car park.

I have previously taken part in previous 40 Days for Life campaigns but decided not to join the latest one and keep a lower profile. One of my colleagues on the abortion/preterm birth paper is concerned that our academic credentials need to be protected so it is important to try to avoid misrepresentation – at least while we are trying to get published.

Since those meetings in the summer, Parliament has gone one stage further and voted for bubble zones outside abortion centres throughout the UK. Numbers of ‘conservative’ MPs also voted for this. Anyone breaching this could end up in jail. You have to ask what is the Conservative Party for since they have not conserved anything for a long time. In this respect they are not conserving free speech and they are not conserving/protecting unborn life or conserving the right of women attending abortion appointments to receive adequate information. The Conservative Party have also imposed abortion on Northern Ireland and introduced same sex ‘marriage’ and now ‘no fault divorce,’ thereby not conserving the status of marriage. Now there is a civil war in The Church of England about whether their clergy can conduct same sex ‘weddings.

Coming back to Isabel I think what she has done is to expose the absurdity and extremism of the bubble zone ordinance if you can be arrested for praying silently on the street (and possibly going to jail). What she has done in reality is committed blasphemy against the religion of secularism which doesn’t tolerate any rival.

Os Guinness has spoken about being against the world for the world’s sake. This is as good a recent example of this as you can find.

Dr. Greg Gardner