Presbyterians pursue legal action against anti-abortion protesters

Monday, July 6, 1998

Lincoln, Nebraska's city law department and an attorney for a local church say they are working together to draft an ordinance that would guarantee worshippers' religious freedom without compromising the First Amendment rights of anti-abortion protesters.

Rescue the Heartland, a group of abortion protesters from Omaha, began targeting the Westminster Presbyterian Church 18 months ago after Dr. Winston Crabb, who performs abortions, was elected as a church elder.

The demonstrations have become a widely watched struggle pitting worshippers' First Amendment right to exercise their religion against anti-abortion protesters' free-speech and assembly rights.

During church services, members of Rescue the Heartland demonstrate on the sidewalks and streets outside the church. Some protesters hold up pictures of aborted fetuses; others attach leaflets to parishioners' cars.

Citing psychological injury, churchgoers have requested police protection and have even hired an attorney to pursue legal action against the pickets.

Westminster's attorney Alan Peterson said that he plans to introduce to the city council an ordinance amicable to both parties within the next couple of weeks.

“I see this as a matter of trying to accommodate free-speech rights and the significant government interest of freedom to select religion,” said Peterson, who has represented several of Nebraska's news media groups for more than 30 years.

“Some members of the council are highly sympathetic to our position and have expressed concern that they want to see the city pass an ordinance that will not be challenged,” Peterson said.

The proposed ordinance could include “a buffer zone for picketing demonstrations around churches and other religious premises to avoid disruptions and infringements on people's desire to bring their families to church without having little kids terrified,” Peterson said.

Larry Donlan, director of the anti-abortion group, told the Associated Press: “The facts are, we don't follow people, we don't scream at children. We don't harass them. We stand on a public sidewalk witnessing against an abomination against the church.”

Peterson and several church members disagree.

Peterson said that some of the anti-abortion activists carry 4-foot photos showing parts of fetuses. “The pictures are often accompanied by words or gestures which are threatening and frightening to children.”

Dana Roper, chief assistant city attorney, said that Peterson, on behalf of the church, has submitted to the city law office an ordinance that would prohibit picketing within 150 feet of the church when there is a scheduled church service. Beyond 150 feet there would be no restrictions.

“We're taking a look at that possibility, whether it would be constitutional and whether it can withstand a challenge,” Roper said. “There are not many ordinances or statutes out there regarding picketing of churches.

“The issue is, can two competing sections of the Constitution—an individual's freedom of religion and an individual's freedom to redress their grievances through freedom of speech—coexist in any manner?

“By and large, we haven't gone through many church picketing cases,” Roper said. “There's an officer stationed there each Sunday. …If things were too far out of hand, some tickets would have been issued, and none have been so far.”

At any rate, “the matter's hot and will move forward in some fashion,” Peterson said.