Scotland: Most extreme buffer zone law passes first stage

Country: United Kingdom

Date of incident: May 30, 2024

The Scottish draft legislation on abortion "buffer zones", which was passed at first stage on April 30, has sparked a debate on the criminalisation of silent prayer in these zones. This bill proposes the creation of a zone extending to 200 meters around abortion clinics in which "influencing" someone in regard to abortion would be illegal. In a parliament debate MSP Jeremy Balfour asked if he would be criminalised for praying at a bus stop inside the zone. He tabled an amendment seeking to exclude silent prayer from the criminal actions within the zone. MSP Gillian Mackay who introduced the Bill responded to Mr Balfour by saying: "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 lack of clarity of Ms. Mackay's views on silent prayer in these zones raises a cause for concern. The Scottish Parliament’s Health, Social Care and Sport Committee itself has expressed concerns over this issue 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." 

The Bill was introduced in October 2023 and passed stage one on April 30, with 123 votes to 1. There are 2 more stages left for it to become a legislation, but if it so happens, this would be the most draconian buffer zone law in the region, as the current draft covers an area of 200 meters around abortion clinics (compared to 100m in Northern Ireland and 150m in England and Wales), with the possibility of being further extended if it does not "adequately protect women". Furthermore, it also applies to displays in residential buildings, which would criminalise people for having pro-life signs visible on their windows or cars.

In England, several individuals got fined for silent, peaceful prayer, including the recent case of Sebastian Vaughan-Spruce who got fined in May 2024 for standing silently in a buffer zone (OIDAC reported). The criminalisation of silent prayer in the UK has been met with great concern not only by human rights organisations, but also by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (OIDAC reported). 

The more brutal Scottish legislation would make it even easier to target people for their beliefs and criminalise silent prayer.

Sources: The Scotsman, Crux,, BBC

Link to the Draft Law: Scottish Parliament

Image: Simon Whittaker on Wiki Commons