Lincoln, Neb., City Council decides to fight for anti-picketing law

Monday, November 23, 1998

The Lincoln, Neb., City Council last week decided it would appeal a preliminary injunction preventing the city from enforcing anti-abortion picketing limits in front of city churches.

With a 5-2 vote, the council decided to take its case to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The council, also voting 5-2, turned down Councilman Jerry Shoecraft’s request to drop the case.

Both votes, the Lincoln Journal Star reported, were made behind closed doors with no public debate.

For more than 18 months, members of Rescue the Heartland, an Omaha-based anti-abortion group, have demonstrated in front of Lincoln’s Westminster Presbyterian Church. Demonstrators often carried large signs displaying photographs of aborted fetuses.

The group said it targeted Westminster Presbyterian because one of the church’s elders, Dr. Winston Crabb, performed abortions in Lincoln and Omaha.

The picketing infuriated church members who said the posters and signs harmed children who walked by them to attend services.

Council members responded during a meeting in September by passing an ordinance restricting anti-abortion pickets in front of all Lincoln churches. The ordinance requires protesters with signs and banners to stand across from churches and is in effect 30 minutes before and after services only.

Mayor Mike Johanns vetoed the ordinance, but the council voted 5-2 to override the veto.

Rescue the Heartland filed a lawsuit in federal court on Sept. 23 challenging the ordinance. U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf issued a permanent injunction on Nov. 4, ruling that the ordinance blocked “substantially more speech than is necessary.”

“The ordinance is not narrowly tailored to serve the government interest that prompted the ordinance, in violation of the First Amendment,” Kopf wrote.

City officials say that if the appeals court accepts their case, it may take 18 months to two years before the court renders a decision. They estimate that the case could cost the city as much as $170,000 if it should lose its appeal and is forced to pay the anti-abortion group’s legal costs.