JACKSON, Miss. — A federal judge in Mississippi has denied a request for a preliminary injunction against a local police department accused of harassing and intimidating Christians who conduct pro-life outreach outside of the state’s last remaining abortion facility.
“[Our] request that pro-life advocates receive injunctive relief from harassment by the City of Jackson, Mississippi Police Department was denied by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi Jackson Division,” wrote Tom Ciesielka of the Life Legal Defense Foundation in an update yesterday. “Despite hours of supportive testimony and a long and well documented history of police misconduct, Judge Carlton Reeves denied a preliminary injunction prohibiting the city police from further persecution of peaceful pro-life protesters.”
As previously reported, the Foundation filed suit in July against the Jackson Police Department on behalf of the organization Pro-Life Mississippi and eight Christians for what has been described as a “blatant and ongoing violation of free speech rights of pro-life advocates.”
The civil rights action “challenges specific police misconduct as well as policies, customs and practices of the City of Jackson, whereby it continually infringed, and continues to infringe, upon the free speech rights of citizens by unlawfully arresting, citing and threatening to arrest such citizens for conduct that is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as the Constitution of the State of Mississippi.”
“The Jackson Police Department has routinely harassed pro-life citizens, who have been peacefully exercising their legal right to oppose abortion in the public square and offer information about life-affirming alternatives to women seeking abortion,” stated foundation President Dana Cody.
The case centers on threats and arrests over the past year at Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the last remaining abortion facility in the state. As previously reported, Cal Zastrow, one of the Christians named in the suit, told Christian News Network last year that he believed the Jackson Police Department has been trying every avenue possible to force Christians who conduct outreach at the facility to leave.
“[B]asically, the police have gone overly aggressive with arresting people in trying to intimidate us to get off the streets,” he said.
Zastrow was arrested twice in 2013 for allowing his pro-life sign to touch the ground and was charged with obstructing a public sidewalk. He states that there is no law prohibiting people from allowing hand-held signs from being on the ground.
Ester Mann, a pro-life grandmother, was likewise arrested last year for letting her sign rest on the public sidewalk, as well as John Breeken, who was taken into custody for the same alleged offense. Mann and Ron Nederhoed were again arrested later that year for sitting in a lawn chair on the sidewalk while holding pro-life signs.
Earlier this year, Doug Lane was detained by Jackson police after being accused of preaching too loudly, and Roy McMillan was ordered to remain in his vehicle when he was found to be distributing pro-life literature on the public sidewalk.
The Ohio-based group Created Equal also conducted an awareness campaign outside of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and when a nearby business owner began stealing the signs and placing them in his basement, the Jackson Police Department did not act.
“The judge prevented us from entering the city ordinances for the record and then ruled that he couldn’t decide in our favor because the ordinances weren’t entered as evidence,” Zastrow said about the hearings that took place over the lawsuit. “Unattended, big, ugly sculptures, sandwich boards, and political signs are permitted to block entire sidewalks, but pro-life Christians are arrested if a hand-held sign touches the ground.”
“We are very concerned about the potential for police mistreatment of our clients as this case awaits its day in court,” added Life Legal Defense Foundation Executive Director and President Dana Cody in response to the court’s denial of a preliminary injunction.”It is very disappointing that the district court did not acknowledge that a police department that is already behaving with impunity might perceive this as an opportunity to continue illegal harassment of private citizens exercising their constitutionally protected freedoms.”
The case will now move to discovery stage and will go to trial in the spring.