Germany’s Federal Administrative Court, or 'Bundesverwaltungsgericht', the supreme administrative court of the Federal Republic of Germany in Leipzig. (Photo by Mario Hommes/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)


Peaceful prayer cannot be banned outside abortion centres, rules top German court


Germany’s Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig has ruled that blanket bans on peaceful prayer groups outside abortion centres are not permissible.

Lawyers representing the primary plaintiff in the case are calling the decision by the country’s highest administrative court a “resounding win for freedom of assembly in Germany”.

“Freedom of assembly and expression are cornerstones of democracy and the rule of law,” said Tomislav Cunovic, the lawyer representing Pavica Vojnović, who took the case to Germany’s top court.

“That is why blanket bans on prayer assemblies based on mere allegations are contrary to fundamental rights. The courts have recognised this,” he added.

In  2019, the city of Pforzheim banned the 40 Days for Life prayer group from “praying within eye and earshot” of a local abortion centre run by Pro Familia, reports ADF International, a faith-based legal advocacy organisation that supported Vojnović’s legal defence.

Pro Familia is the German arm of the US-based Planned Parenthood network, providing abortion-related counselling and abortions throughout Germany.

Vojnović, the prayer group’s leader, went to court to challenge the Pforzheim ban on the basis that it violated the right to freedom of assembly.

The Federal Administrative Court’s ruling contravenes the German Government’s stated plan to introduce country-wide limitations on prayer vigils targeting abortion-related facilities.

Germany’s Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Lisa Paus, has discussed using legal measures to restrict prayer-group meetings in the vicinity of abortion-related facilities to ensure that pregnant women who want an abortion have “unhindered access” throughout Germany, reports local media.

Paus said prayer vigils in front of such facilities are “borderline violations and unacceptable interference in women’s highly personal decisions”.

The federal judges ruled that the “circumstances of each individual case” must be considered when weighing “the fundamental rights of an assembly” versus “the general personal rights of women seeking counselling”.

A regional court had already ruled in August 2022 in favour of the prayer group’s right to peacefully assembly, a decision that was appealed by Pforzheim authorities. The latest ruling by the Federal Administrative Court “confirms that the city has no appeal”, said ADF International.

It noted that in the 2022 ruling by the Mannheim Administrative Court, the judges ruled that “freedom of assembly … is constitutive for a free democratic state order”.

In the decision by the Federal Administrative Court the judges stated: “It follows from the fundamental right to freedom of assembly that the holders of this right, in particular the organiser, may determine the place, time, type and content of the assembly.”

The judges added that “prohibitions for the purpose of preventing certain expressions of opinion because of their content” are not permitted.

While the Federal court’s decision “sends a strong message” about “the constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and speech”, ADF International noted that the Federal government could still “technically” pursue enforcing “censorship zones” through “legal measures”. If it does so, it added, “a clash with the judiciary will evidently follow”.

The German case has similarities to that of pregnancy counsellor Isabel Vaughan-Spruce in the UK. In December 2022 she was arrested over charges in connection with silent prayer near a closed abortion facility in Birmingham.

The city council had implemented a 150-metre buffer zone via a Public Spaces Protection Order. She was recently acquitted, with her supporters criticising the charges brought against her as being tantamount to a “thought crime”.

Debates about freedom of speech and conscience issues are increasingly on the agendas of EU lawmakers and European courts.