Arrested for Praying Silently on a UK Street?
Rosa Lalor’s case sends out a chilling message to British Christians.
On Feb. 24, 2021, Rosa Lalor left her home in Liverpool, England, to go for a walk. By the end of that walk, the 76-year-old grandmother found herself apprehended and then questioned by police officers — before eventually being fined.
Her crime: praying silently on a public street.
Today, she is in court fighting against that fine.
Mrs. Lalor’s walk came at an unusual time. She walked and prayed during the 2021 lockdown. This was something she did almost every day during that period. Such walks were permitted by the government guidelines, encouraged even for all U.K. citizens, who were then subject to the strictures of repeated lockdowns and resultant COVID regulations.
Lalor wore a face covering; she was socially distanced; she was alone; and she was wearing headphones. She bothered no one. Doubtless, she was hardly noticed by anyone.
Crucially, however, on that February day, Lalor found herself walking past an abortion facility. When she did, as many have done before and since outside such places, she began to pray silently.
Suddenly, she was confronted by police officers. They began to question her. “Why are you outdoors?” She answered simply that she was “walking and praying.” On hearing this, the police officer responded that Lalor was not praying in a place of worship, and, furthermore, she did not have a “reasonable excuse” to be outdoors at that time. The officer went on to assert that she was outside the abortion facility to “protest.”
Lalor was arrested.
She was taken to a waiting police car.
She was detained there.
She was charged by police officers with breaching COVID regulations.
She was fined £200 ($250).
But that has not been the end of the matter.
ADF UK is a faith-based legal advocacy organization that exists to protect fundamental freedoms and promote the inherent dignity of all people. Key to this aim is ensuring that all people — people like Rosa Lalor — have the ability to freely live out their faith in public. With the help of ADF UK, Lalor is challenging her fine.
ADF UK lawyer Jeremiah Igunnubole told the Register via email: “According to the police, Rosa was arrested for not having ‘a reasonable excuse’ for being outside her home, even though she was walking alone in a public space and was compliant with all the relevant health and safety protocols. She prayed silently whilst she walked as part of her daily exercise, which was both legal and recommended at the time.” Igunnubole is under no illusion, however, as to the real reason she ended up coming to the attention of police. “It is clear that if Rosa did not pray, she would not stand charged with a criminal offense today.” He further maintains that her arrest could only have been “because the police officer either misunderstood well-established laws protecting freedom of religion and expression in public spaces or, more concerningly, deliberately ignored them.” He added, “No one should be criminalized simply for praying, which is why we support Rosa’s defense and remain hopeful for a positive outcome.”
And what are her chances of success in an English court? Igunnubole says she has a strong defense that appeals “directly to the express exemptions under the coronavirus regulations and her fundamental rights.” He is hopeful that the decision to fine Lalor will be reviewed in light of the fact that the relevant regulations did not replace or amend the 1998 Human Rights Act that protects freedom of thought, conscience and expression of religion in public. The whole incident highlights, says Igunnubole, the need for the United Kingdom’s police officers to receive specific training to ensure a proper grasp of human-rights laws as they apply to criminal offenses, particularly where the alleged offense pertains to religion or freedom of speech. Igunnubole suggests that, from the repeated wrongful arrests of street preachers to the denial of last rites for Sir David Amess, police officers have repeatedly shown a failure “to strike the balance between tackling genuine criminal behavior and upholding fundamental rights.” He thinks this latest case involving Lalor highlights “the need for better training within the police force on how to strike such a balance.”
Lalor is claiming that she is “not guilty” of the charge brought against her, namely breaching the then COVID regulations. Since that initial fine, she has been subject to legal proceedings for more than a year as she awaits a criminal court hearing date. As Igunnubole points out, even if she is eventually vindicated, the uncertainty and delay around these proceedings have “caused significant distress [to her] and only compound the chilling effect caused by the arrest and prosecution.”
“I have always respected the law and never wished to be involved in legal action,” Lalor said in a statement released through her lawyers, which went on to say, “but having been fined simply for praying whilst walking, I know this is an important challenge to take forward. With support from ADF UK, I’m taking a stand to protect fundamental freedoms for all people.” She then added, “I never thought that in a democratic country like the U.K. I would be arrested for a simple and solitary prayer walk,” while emphasising that her prayer was “in the privacy of my own mind.” Her statement ends with a question: “What kind of society are we, when people can be arrested simply for peacefully manifesting their faith in public?”
A question the Register put to Robert Colquhoun, the U.K.-based director of international campaigns for pro-life advocacy group 40 Days for Life. What does 40 Days for Life make of Lalor’s case? “The right to express your faith in a public space, including silent prayer, is a fundamental human right which is protected in both national and international law,” said Colquhoun. Furthermore, he says that British police have a duty to uphold rights and freedoms of citizens rather than to deny freedom of expression and of religion. “These types of arrest subject law-abiding individuals to distressing and drawn-out criminal proceedings,” he added.
“We have supported Rosa throughout her case,” stated Colquhoun, “ensuring that she received the best legal help and support. We have also ensured that she has the right financial help for the case and have done everything to make sure that she has all the necessary conditions to act according to her conscience.”
That a 76-year-old grandmother can be fined for praying silently outside an English abortion facility — a facility that carried out 4,040 abortions in 2020 — what does Colquhoun think that says about Britain today? “It raises the question what kind of society we are when people can be arrested simply for peacefully manifesting their faith in public,” he said. Then he added, “Rosa never thought that in a democratic country she would be arrested for a simple and solitary prayer walk.”