Crackdown on prayer vigils across the country

A simultaneous crackdown on prayer outside abortion clinics is occurring across the country.

It began in Canberra, where recently passed laws imposing “exclusion zones” around abortion clinics began to be enforced.  The Catholic Voice reports that eight participants in a peaceful and prayerful vigil which has been gathering on the same Canberra street for 17 years received an official police warning, and were asked to move on. 

A 75 year old man did not comply with the request, and so was fined $750.  He explained that the law prohibited protest, and he did not believe that prayer was a form of protest.  He explained that a protest was directed at others, while prayer was addressed to God.  He is asking the charges be withdrawn on that basis.

Similar laws also passed recently in Melbourne came into force this week, with police officers attending at an East Melbourne abortion clinic on Monday.  According to an article in The Age “police were called to the clinic after reports a man was praying outside.”

You can’t make this stuff up!

The article goes further to say that “a bill introduced by Sex Party MP Fiona Patten last year made it illegal for anti-abortion protesters to harass or film people coming or going from abortion clinics, with heavy penalties for those who break the law.”

What the article fails to mention is that before the introduction of the Sex Party law, harassment or filming was already illegal.

Section 21A of the Victorian Crimes Act already prohibits using abusive or offensive words, performing abusive or offensive acts, giving offensive material or leaving it where it will be found, keeping a person under surveillance or acting in any other way that could reasonably be expected to cause physical or mental harm, including self-harm to a person.

The only reason for a new law is that those keeping prayerful vigil were not breaching any of these prohibitions, even though they are incredibly broad.

The only reasonable conclusion is that the law is designed not to punish conduct, but a particular view about abortion.

And yesterday, we heard that Labor MLC Penny Sharpe will be introducing a private members’ bill for similar laws in NSW.

Ms Sharpe told media that “women trying to access a reproductive health service should not have to run the gauntlet of people who are seeking to stop them with physical harassment, graphic images and verbal abuse.”

But like in Victoria, the type of behaviour which Ms Sharpe is using to justify the imposition of an exclusion zone around abortion clinics is already prohibited under the law.  Section 545B of the NSW Crimes Act makes it a crime to use violence or intimidation to compel a person to abstain from undertaking a lawful activity.

If Ms Sharpe believes that this is not a broad enough, then the appropriate response would be to amend the Crimes Act to make sure that bad behaviour is illegal in any circumstance, and not just around abortion clinics.  Everyone should be afforded protection against physical harassment and verbal abuse.

But I think Ms Sharpe knows that this type of behaviour is already against the law.

I think that like in Victoria, the proposed law is not about protecting anyone, but rather about criminalising opposition to abortion.  If that’s the case, we should at least be honest about it and not pretend it has anything to do with the safety of women.

Monica Doumit, Catholic Talk contributor

Thursday, 05 May 2016 09:45 Written by 
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in CathTalk blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of all members of that of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

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