Pro-life sidewalk counselors may continue praying, preaching, and handing out literature in front of a Queens, N.Y., abortion center, a federal judge ruled on Friday.
The case began last June when former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed suit, charging the counselors with harassment, physical obstruction, and threats of violence against women seeking abortions at Choices Medical Clinic and the volunteers escorting them to the door. (Schneiderman’s office carried on with the lawsuit after his resignation in May over sexual assault allegations.)
“To the contrary, the record as a whole suggests that the defendants have endeavored to toe the line between lawful and unlawful conduct,” U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon wrote in a 103-page opinion. She refused to grant a preliminary injunction against the 13 counselors.
“We thank the Lord that our life-affirming work to counsel women considering abortion was upheld in federal court,” Kenneth Griepp, senior pastor at the Church at the Rock in Brooklyn, said in a statement. He added that the group of sidewalk counselors “will continue to offer compassion to those who see abortion as the only way out of an unexpected pregnancy.”
Martin Cannon, attorney with the Thomas More Society, argued in court that the suit violated the sidewalk counselors’ First Amendment rights. He told me that the state’s accusations of force or threats of force were based on incidents initiated by the facility’s volunteer escorts. When a counselor struck up a conversation with a woman on her way to the door, a group of escorts would crowd the woman away from the pro-life advocate. That produced incidental brushing of shoulders and other interactions, but not harassment.
“The sidewalk counselor is still trying to call out to her, maybe trying to hand her a pamphlet. That’s what’s supposed to be this harassment,” Cannon said. The pro-lifers, he said, “are out there just to offer assistance to women. And it’s not just empty words. They have little babies running around in their church and in their homes that have sprung from that sidewalk. They really put their money where their mouth is, and they don’t harass people.” Cannon added, “The case was an abuse of the rights of peaceful New York citizens.”
Amon tossed out much of the state’s evidence and several testimonies, calling them “unreliable.” The lawsuit claimed that counselors Ranville Thomas and Ronald George, both affiliated with the Church at the Rock, had threatened volunteer escorts with death. The attorney general’s office quoted them saying, “You never know when you’re going to die.”
But “after years of sharing the sidewalk with Thomas and R. George,” Amon wrote, the abortion center escorts understood that the counselors were urging them to repent, not making threats, and were not genuinely intimidated. The judge attributed the shoulder-bumping and jostling caught on camera to the “escorts often outnumbering the protesters two to one” on the sidewalk.
The state could appeal the decision, but Cannon said it will prove difficult because Amon ruled based on a lack of evidence rather than law.
“Planned Parenthood nationwide, all of the pro-abortion attorney generals nationwide were watching this case,” he said. “If Schniederman had succeeded, you’d see these brazen efforts at distorting law pop up against counselors on the sidewalk everywhere in the country. So it’s a very significant case.”