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Scotland’s radical “buffer zone” law passed the first stage in Parliament

The Scottish draft legislation on abortion "buffer zones," passed at its first stage on April 30, has ignited a debate on the criminalisation of silent prayer within these zones.


This bill proposes a 200-meter zone around abortion clinics where “influencing” someone regarding abortion would be illegal. During a parliamentary debate, MSP Jeremy Balfour questioned whether he would be criminalised for praying silently at a bus stop within the zone. He proposed an amendment to exclude silent prayer from the prohibited actions.

In response, MSP Gillian Mackay, who introduced the Bill, stated: “If nobody knows someone is praying, and nothing in their conduct is capable of having the effects on women or staff that this Bill seeks to prevent, then it is unlikely that any offence could be committed. If someone stands silently praying for a long time, deliberately looking at women accessing an abortion clinic, or for example with a sign, then they may be committing an offence.”

The ambiguity in Ms. Mackay’s stance on silent prayer in these zones is concerning. The Scottish Parliament’s Health, Social Care and Sport Committee has also raised concerns, stating that it “remains unclear how the intent of those silently praying can be interpreted. It could be difficult for the police to reach a clear decision whether the law has been broken by people standing silently praying, in the absence of any other behaviour.”

Introduced in October 2023, the Bill passed its first stage with a vote of 123 to 1 on April 30. There are two more stages before it can become law. If enacted, this would be the most stringent buffer zone law in the region, covering a 200-meter area around abortion clinics (compared to 100 meters in Northern Ireland and 150 meters in England and Wales), with the potential for extension if it does not “adequately protect women.” Additionally, the bill would apply to displays in residential buildings, potentially criminalising pro-life signs visible in windows or on cars.

In England, individuals have been fined for silent, peaceful prayer, including Sebastian Vaughan-Spruce, who was fined in May 2024 for standing silently in a buffer zone (OIDAC reported). The criminalisation of silent prayer in the UK has raised significant concern among human rights organisations and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (OIDAC reported).

The proposed Scottish legislation could further facilitate the targeting and criminalisation of individuals for their beliefs, making silent prayer a punishable offence.


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