THE Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, has backed an amendment that would give special protection to places of worship under government proposals to clamp down on public disruption such as the Just Stop Oil campaign.
The Public Order Bill, presently before Parliament, aims to toughen the law on extreme actions such as motorway sit-ins, tunnelling under building developments, or “locking on”: protesters glueing, chaining, or otherwise attaching themselves to public sites.
During a Lords debate last week on the Committee stage of the Bill, Bishop Williams welcomed an amendment which specified churches as an “essential service to the community”, where such actions could be deemed unlawful. The Bishop said: “The amendment upholds the access to ‘a place of worship’ as an essential service. I am very pleased that this amendment enshrines freedom of religion or belief in a central part of the Bill.
“As we have been reminded over the pandemic, churches and other religious buildings offer essential services for their local community. Access to these buildings and the pastoral work of the clergy and other faith leaders should not be unreasonably hindered.
“Churches are not unfamiliar with protests. Indeed, they have sometimes been a catalyst for good and even forthright protest inspired by principles of faith in the interest of the common good. The example of Jesus is a challenge and, I believe, an inspiration in this regard. Sadly, there have also been times when churches have been the focus of reasonable protest, challenging the Church when it and society have failed to exemplify the values that underpin faith.
“Either way, many protests over the centuries have happened inside or within the vicinity of our buildings. Churches are public buildings, places of sanctuary and refuge, there to serve all in their community. They are therefore to be considered essential places for people to meet, to worship, and to nourish their faith, and for all who are seeking spiritual comfort or hope, often in difficult times.
“The right to attend a place of worship is therefore a vital human right enshrined in law in our country, and it is important that this law makes that clear.”
Bishop Williams also supported an amendment asking the Government to define more clearly what would constitute “serious disruption to the life of the community”. He said that that would give the police and those wishing to engage in lawful protest clearer guidelines on what is and is not acceptable, and would provide “much needed democratic oversight” of the Bill.
“A lack of clarity is not helpful to either the police or the community. Many police officers have expressed a desire for clearer statutory guidance, and many are concerned that they will be asked to make decisions on matters which they do not have the confidence to make.
“The amendment would mean that protesters would rightly be prevented from disruption to essential services, but the right to reasonable democratic protest would still be protected.”