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‘Contrary to fundamental rights’: German High Court strikes down ban on prayer vigils at abortion centres

Image credit: Creative Commons (L) & Pexels (R)

Germany’s highest administrative court has struck down a ban on peaceful prayer vigils outside abortion centres. The Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig ruled on Thursday that such bans are a violation of constitutional rights, with the news strongly welcomed by pro-life advocates.

The court ruled that blanket bans on prayer gatherings at abortion clinics infringe upon freedom of assembly. The right to freedom of assembly is guaranteed under the Republic of Germany’s Basic Law, which was ratified in 1949.

40 Days for Life, a prayer-focused grassroots movement to end abortion, expressed relief at the landmark decision after the ruling was communicated last week. 

In a statement, the local 40 Days for Life prayer group, led by Pavica Vojnović, said the ruling brought an end to the group’s “legal ordeal”; a regional court had already confirmed the group’s right to peaceful assembly back in August last year, which was appealed by the city of Pforzheim, where the group is based. The new ruling, however, provides clarification that the city has no appeal, the group explained in a statement via Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF).

“I’m truly relieved. Our prayers really help, as affected women have told us over and over. I am grateful that we can continue our prayer vigils. Every human life is precious and deserves protection,” said Pavica Vojnović after the decision was handed down,” Vojnović, whose legal defence was supported by ADF International, said.

In 2019, peaceful and prayerful gatherings, which had been organised by a local 40 Days for Life group, were banned in the city of Pforzheim in the South West of the country. The city banned the group from praying within eye or earshot of the Pro Familia abortion counselling facility, a German arm of abortion provider Planned Parenthood. However, the decision was challenged by Vojnović, who went to court to argue that the ban violated their right to freedom of assembly.

“The court in Leipzig has once again made clear that peaceful prayer vigils cannot be banned. In view of the clear findings of the court, the federal government would be well advised to abandon its plans to massively restrict fundamental rights in the vicinity of abortion organisations,” Dr. Felix Böllmann, Director of European advocacy for ADF International said, following the decision.

He continued: “The ruling upholds the fundamental importance of freedom of assembly and expression in the public square. The court has affirmed the fundamental right of Pavica and her group to come together to pray in peace. It is duplicitous and misleading to advance bans on prayer gatherings in the name of protecting women. The harassment of women is always, and already, a crime in Germany”. 

“The economic self-interests of an organisation like Pro Familia cannot take precedence over the German citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of assembly and expression. This most recent ruling sends a clear signal to Berlin that blanket bans on peaceful prayer vigils for women in vulnerable situations have no place in a free and democratic state,” said Böllmann.

Pavica Vojnović’s lawyer, Tomislav Cunovic, Vojnovic’s lawyer, said that freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are “cornerstones of democracy and the rule of law.

“That is why blanket bans on prayer assemblies based on mere allegations are contrary to fundamental rights. The courts have recognised this. Standing up for unborn children and peacefully expressing this opinion in front of abortion facilities cannot be banned by powerful lobby groups like pro familia,” he said.

Plans to impose ‘safe access’ zones around abortion facilities and hospitals in Ireland have come under fire from advocates of free speech. 

Last week, barrister Grace Sullivan, criticised both the Safe Access and Hate Speech Bills, saying she believed both bills “criminalise religious speech, even potentially where there is no identifiable victim”.

Writing in the Bar review, she said the Bill which would make it a criminal offence to pray silently at abortion centres, when taken in conjunction with the Hate Speech Bill, “in totality, these actions demonstrate a concerning trend towards the deployment of the heavy hand of criminal law to silence religious speech that does not incite  violence, harass, or intimidate, but has the capacity to ‘offend’.”

She argued that: “it is admitted that certain religious speech may be considered offensive by many in modern society; however, it is argued that free speech protections are rendered impotent if they only cover speech that is endorsed by the majority.”

Ms Sullivan said that, somewhat surprisingly, the government seemed to believe that the power of prayer could influence a woman to change her mind on abortion.

“Under the legislation, it will presumably become a criminal offence to offer prayer to a woman entering a designated premises. It is unclear whether the legislation has gone further.”

“Is the Government tacitly and somewhat surprisingly endorsing the power of prayer to persuade a woman to change her mind and therefore prohibiting such activity within 100 metres of a designated premises in totality?” she asked.

In Northern Ireland, exclusion zones legislation was passed at Stormont last year. Such zones can now be enforced by police, however pro-life groups including Precious Life have vowed to continue holding peaceful, prayerful events as the province’s abortion rate increases.

This piece was first published on Gript

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