UK Grandmother Wins Religious-Freedom Challenge
The case of Rosa Lalor highlights many challenges ahead for pro-life prayerful witness.
LONDON — In April 2022, the Register reported on the case of Rosa Lalor, who, on Feb. 24, 2021, had 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.
She decided to fight the sanction.
This month, she learned that she had won her appeal.
Merseyside Police have dropped charges against Lalor on the basis of legal arguments submitted with the support of human-rights group ADF UK. The police force accepted that the grandmother was acting well within her rights to pray while she was walking in a public space.
They accepted that her actions were reasonable and should not have been curtailed under the then-coronavirus regulations. Furthermore, Merseyside Police accepted that Lalor had a right to pray, as protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which states that everyone has a right to manifest their freedom of thought, conscience and religion, “either alone or in community with others and in public or private.”
Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, is “thrilled” by the victory. He said in a press release, “It is deeply regrettable that this law-abiding woman was subjected to distressing, drawn-out criminal proceedings in the first place, no doubt due to her pro-life stance. This follows a worrying trend in law enforcement, where individuals are routinely arrested simply because their views are considered to be controversial or offensive.”
Igunnubole observed that the case highlighted that police officers cannot arrest an individual based solely on their interpretation of the legitimacy of a particular point of view. Neither, he pointed out, can officers express a view about the acceptability of an opinion that is a matter of political and social debate. “This would amount to viewpoint discrimination,” he explained.
Last February, it was the same English police service that was forced to apologize for wrongly claiming “being offensive is an offense” as part of a campaign to encourage people to report hate crime. Later, Merseyside Police had to clarify that while hate crime is an offense, “being offensive is not in itself an offense.”
If nothing else, Igunnubole said the Lalor case highlights “an urgent need” for proper training of police officers across the United Kingdom to ensure that they understand people’s right to freedom of expression and religion as it relates to public-order offenses. Igunnubole said that police officers could better spend their time “prioritizing real crimes that concern ordinary people rather than being the agents of cancel culture.”
U.K. pro-life groups have welcomed the outcome of the Lalor case. 40 Days for Life supported her throughout.
Robert Colquhoun, international director of 40 Days for Life, said that this latest news from Liverpool has wider implications for those who pray outside abortion facilities nationwide.
“This is an important win, because authorities cannot simply decide to censor prayer on the street,” he said. “We are committed to engaging in prayer because we believe that women and babies deserve far better than abortion and that we can find solutions to support both lives in a pregnancy. … We hope that Rosa’s story sends a clear message that, in a democracy, there is space for freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of thought — and that censorship is a disservice to everyone.”
Rosa Lalor’s ‘Crime’
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 — a facility that carried out 4,040 abortions in 2020. 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 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, taken to a waiting police car and detained there.
Subsequently, she was charged by police officers with breaching COVID regulations and fined £200 ($250).
With the support of ADF UK, Lalor challenged her fine. However, her fight was not about receiving a financial penalty. It was, she said, so that all would have the ability to freely live out their faith in public.
“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.”
A Rare Pro-Life Victory
Lalor may have won a victory “to protect fundamental freedoms for all people,” but looking at the ongoing British obsession with so-called “buffer zones” around abortion facilities, there are still many challenges ahead for pro-life public witness.
The English city councils of Liverpool and Bournemouth have recently launched consultations about measures near abortion facilities that would prohibit pro-lifers from offering financial and practical help to women looking for an alternative to abortion.
The Scottish government has shown support for rolling out “buffer zones” across all of Scotland, with one already existing in Aberdeen. In June, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chaired a “summit” on the issue, inviting campaigners in favor of censorship zones to participate.
In the London boroughs of Richmond and in Ealing, where buffer zones have already been implemented, silent prayer is prohibited in the 150 meters (.09 miles) zone around local abortion facilities. These London provisions have become the template for other British councils seeking to implement similar measures.
In Northern Ireland, new regulations prohibit the act of “influencing” within 100 meters of an abortion facility. The legality of that bill will be scrutinized by the U.K. Supreme Court later this month.
“The criminalization of any kind of ‘influencing’ is so broad that it could reduce the threshold of criminality to an impermissibly low level,” said Lois McLatchie, communications officer for ADF UK. “We know from a Home Office Review into the situation that instances of harassment outside of abortion facilities are rare, and when it happens, police already have powers to stop it. Buffer zones introduce a blanket ban on all activity, including offering meaningful charitable help and support to women where they need it most.”