ALBANY, N.Y. — A federal judge has ruled against a lawsuit by the Office of the Attorney General of New York, which sued 13 pro-life Christians last year in alleging that they had engaged in repeated “harassment” of women outside an abortion facility in seeking to persuade the mothers not to kill their unborn child.
Judge Carol Bagley Amon, appointed to the bench by then-President George H.W. Bush, concluded that (now former) Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office did not present sufficient evidence to prove that any of the Christians outside Choices Women’s Medical Center engaged in conduct that would rise to the level of willful harassment.
“The interactions on the sidewalk outside Choices were generally quite short, and there is no credible evidence that any protester disregarded repeated requests to be left alone over an extended period or changed his or her tone or message in response to requests to be left alone in a way that suggested an intent to harass, annoy, or alarm,” she wrote.
“The OAG [Office of the Attorney General] has failed to show that any defendant had the intent to harass, annoy, or alarm a patient, companion, or escort; thus, it has failed to show that any defendant has violated NYCCAA [the New York City Clinic Access Act], as interpreted by the OAG,” Bagley Amon stated.
As previously reported, Schneiderman, an abortion “rights” advocate, filed the lawsuit last June in claiming that the Christians had engaged in an ongoing pattern of harassment and threats, alleging that the men and women—some of whom hold photos of aborted babies—approach vehicles and lean into the window to offer literature, or follow patients closely on their way into the building, at times handing a pamphlet to the accompanying child and asking him or her to “give this to your mommy to read.”
Schneiderman also took issue with the verbal speech of the pro-lifers, who he said call out “vitriolic” statements such as, “Don’t go in there; they will convince you to kill your baby—that’s how they make money,” “You have the blood of dead babies on your hands” and “They are killing babies above your heads.”
He further asserted that the men and women were disseminating false information, pointing, for example, to a pamphlet that reads, “We know you are probably upset and confused. To save the life of your baby, the laminaria (seaweed sticks) can still be removed. Please don’t do anything now that will hurt your child because you will later regret it.”
In January, Amon seemed to question Schneiderman’s assertions during oral argument as she said that his use of the word “harassment” was vague.
“[The defendants and their attorneys] have got to know clearly what harassment means,” she stated to Assistant Attorney General Sandra Pullman. “What is it? This is a little troubling. I don’t know what it is.”
When Pullman pointed to the dictionary definition of “repeated or persistent behavior that annoys or alarms someone,” Amon replied that if harassment charges were legally able to be filed for being annoying, “I could sue all of you here today.”
On Friday, she officially ruled in favor of the defendants, stating that the video footage and other evidence did not show that any of the Christians had an intent to harass or threaten anyone. Among the many facets of the case, the attorney general’s office had taken issue with preaching by Ranville Thomas and Randall George, who would regularly speak about the brevity of life and the consequent need for repentance and faith in Christ.
Schneiderman’s office cited statements such as “You never know when you’re going to die” and “The people who went to work on 9/11 didn’t know what was going to happen that day; you never know when you’re going to die” as being potential threats.
However, in viewing the video footage and taking their words in context of the intended message, Amon said that the men weren’t being threatening, and opined that the escorts likewise didn’t view the preaching as a threat to their lives, as one made light of George’s words, remarking, “He’s fun. I’m sure he’d be great at parties.”
“[A]n ordinary, reasonable escort familiar with the preaching and other conduct of Thomas and R. George outside Choices … would not interpret their messages about repentance and the shortness of life as threats,” Amon concluded.
She also found that the vast majority of the Christians were not engaging in obstruction, or purposefully trying to physically block abortion-minded mothers from entering the building.
“As long as a protestor does not blockade a clinic entrance or exit, he or she is free to stand or pace with a sign unless and until he or she interferes with another person’s passage to or from the facility,” Amon outlined. “… The OAG argues that most of the defendants in this case have physically obstructed patient, companion, and escort access to Choices. A careful review of the video, photo, and testimonial evidence presented at the preliminary injunction hearing and reveals that only B. George illegally obstructed access to Choices.”
And while she did find that some of the Christians continued to plead with the women and their companions after it was evident that the communication was unwanted, Amon did not believe that it was done with ill intent, but rather “an intent to persuade the patient not to seek abortion services or otherwise support Choices.”
However, while ruling in favor of the 13 defendants and upholding their right to free speech, Amon also sent a word of caution to be mindful of their actions in the future.
“In a few instances noted, several of the defendants’ actions came close to crossing the line from activity protected by the First Amendment to conduct prohibited by NYCCAA. Engaging in concerted activity that suggests an intent to annoy rather than to persuade not only violates the law, but also would seem to be contrary to defendants’ stated objectives,” she wrote.
“Voluntarily discontinuing the practice of speaking to patients who have affirmatively asked to be left alone not only would evidence the defendants’ good will, but also would lessen the likelihood of future litigation directed toward their protest activities,” Amon said.
The men and women are members of various churches and Christian ministries, such as Church @ the Rock, Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, Bright Dawn Ministries and Grace Baptist Church.
“We thank the Lord that our life-affirming work to counsel women considering abortion was upheld in federal court,” Kenneth Griepp, senior pastor at Church @ The Rock and one of the defendants in the case, said in a statement. “As Christians who seek to honor Jesus, like Him, we will continue to offer compassion to those who see abortion as the only way out of an unexpected pregnancy. We said from the beginning that the charges against us were baseless and an offense to the First Amendment. We are grateful for the court’s thoughtful and detailed opinion that vindicates our rights.”
The Thomas More Law Center represented the majority of the defendants in the case. Liberty Counsel represented one of the pro-lifers.