PORTLAND, Maine — A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court ruling that granted a preliminary injunction to a Portland pastor who asserted that he was being unlawfully targeted by police outside of a Planned Parenthood facility for his pro-life preaching.
The Maine Civil Rights Act “is a facially content-neutral measure that targets noise for reasons that have nothing to do with any topic discussed, idea propounded or message conveyed,” Judge David Barron, appointed to the bench by then-President Barack Obama, wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Moreover, by its terms, the measure serves that significant state interest without burdening substantially more speech than necessary and while leaving open ample alternative channels of communication,” he opined.
As previously reported, Andrew March of Cell 53 Church had filed suit in November 2015 after Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a pro-abortion Democrat, filed a civil rights lawsuit to keep Brian Ingalls from standing within 50 feet of the Monument Square Planned Parenthood facility—or any Planned Parenthood location in Maine. Ingalls is an elder at March’s church.
Mills alleged in her lawsuit that Ingalls spoke too loudly on Oct. 23, 2015 about “murdering babies, aborted babies’ blood and Jesus” while preaching outside of Planned Parenthood to the point that his pro-life pleas could be heard in the room where examinations take place.
Police had confronted March and others last year to advise that their voices could be heard by staff and clients inside of the Planned Parenthood facility, and told them to keep it down. But officers reportedly did nothing when those in favor of Planned Parenthood could likewise be heard inside of the building.
In seeking an injunction, March’s attorneys challenged the noise provision of the Maine Civil Rights Act, which states that after receiving a warning, it is illegal for a person to intentionally interfere with a medical procedure at an abortion facility.
In May 2016, U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen, appointed to the bench by Barack Obama, sided with March, opining that the “intent to interfere” portion of the law would pertain to the content of the speech, and would therefore only relate to pro-life speech, which would consequently be an unconstitutional content-based restriction.
“Continued enforcement of a content-based restriction on speech would result in irreparable harm to the Plaintiff,” Torreson ruled.
She said that there are other ways to keep order on the public sidewalk, as police “can further their interests of maintaining order and protecting individual patients through the criminal code, most obviously the disorderly conduct and harassment statutes.”
However, on Tuesday, the First Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Torreson’s ruling, stating that they rather found the law to be content-neutral and that it does not ban abortion opponents from conversing with others, as opposed to lifting up one’s voice to preach—if in doing so the person’s voice can be heard inside the building.
“[T]he requirements laid out on the face of the noise provision do not indicate that the measure would apply to speech expressed at a normal, conversational tone—or even at a louder volume—absent the speaker’s intent to disrupt the provision or receipt of medical services,” it wrote.
In commenting to the Bangor Daily News about the ruling, Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin classified preaching as “screaming.”
“Protests are fine but once patients have run the gauntlet outside the clinic, once the door to the exam room or the consultation room is shut, that should be a sanctuary,” she said. “People shouldn’t be barraged with screaming while obtaining medical care.”
March’s attorneys have yet to comment on the ruling, but a fellow gospel preacher outside Planned Parenthood published a public social media post about the matter.
“We don’t want special privilege; we want equal treatment under law. To enforce a noise ordinance against us would demand that every other group, with any other message, to be silenced as well,” Mark Cowperthwaite, who conducts his ministry alongside his wife and five children, wrote in part.
“[T]hey can’t complain about our noise as long as they allow for other protests about global warming, school children marching against bullying, and gay pride parades, all of which are permitted to not only pass by and be loud at this location, but are also allowed to block traffic, walk in the middle of the road (with permits) and of course allow their own followers to shout and chant right next to us, and they do,” he said.
Cowperthwaite said that it is the duty of every Christian to love their neighbor as himself and to preach the gospel to every creature.
“What we do on Fridays outside Planned Parenthood is a public and consolidated display of our desire to see abortion ended in our nation, the total abolition of the practice of killing children in the womb,” he outlined. “We are there in part to educate the public about what abortion really is (thus the images of actual aborted babies), redress our government of our grievance with their unjust laws, offer help and resources to the women who often feel abortion is their only option, and especially to proclaim the value of human life as made in the image of God.”
“To those who misunderstand what we are doing: We love you even when you mock us, spit on us, and judge us without knowledge of what really happens out there,” Cowperthwaite stated. “If you approach us with genuine questions, we would gladly speak with you. If someone tries to harm you, we will defend you even to the point of giving our own lives for you. Jesus died for us while we were His enemies, and we will protect you from radicals on either side of the issue.”