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Whether it’s the president of the United States, the federal judiciary or a local sheriff or zoning board, anti-constitutional government tyranny is chilling the First Amendment in ways that ought to send shivers down the spine of every freedom-loving American.

On Monday, for instance, a jury in U.S. District Court in Chicago found groups peacefully and non-violently protesting the killing of unborn babies guilty of racketeering laws designed to prosecute mobsters.

Now, regardless of your position on abortion, such a ruling must be viewed for what it is — an attack on all of our rights to free expression. The protesters, in this case, were not extorting money from the abortion clinics they targeted for civil disobedience. They were acting out of conscience. They believed hideous and immoral procedures were taking place inside. Yet, they didn’t bomb the clinics. They didn’t shoot the practitioners. They peacefully protested.

People of conscience on both ends of the political spectrum should understand that the law is being twisted in a deliberate effort to curb freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in this case. They ought to be asking themselves: Who’s next?

G. Robert Blakey, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and one of those responsible for crafting the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act, says the statute was never intended as a legal weapon against protesters. He said it was drafted to target mobsters and white-collar criminals with economic motives for their crimes.

Imagine what such a law, interpreted this broadly, would have meant to the antiwar demonstrators and civil rights activists of the 1960s and 1970s.

But this is just a high-profile example of what’s happening in courtrooms, state houses, and city halls around the country.

In a case that has received far less media coverage, the Greenville County zoning board in South Carolina is threatening to fine a pastor $1,000 a day for holding prayer meetings at his home, despite passage of a state law explicitly permitting such activity.

The county officials say a vague law which prohibits homeowners from having frequent visitors is being violated. Furthermore, they say, if Rev. Orie Wenger of the Mount Zion Christian Fellowship wants to have regular Bible studies at his house, he should get special permission to set up a church.

No, my friends, this isn’t Beijing. It’s South Carolina. And there are thought police in other parts of the state as well.

Anderson County Sheriff Gene Taylor and his allies in the state legislature have begun a personal and political crusade against those “anti-government people” — folks like Dick and Lesley White, members of the county’s Republican Party and Christian Coalition.

The sheriff ordered his helicopter to fly over the Whites’ residence to spy on them as they pruned their apple trees a few weeks ago. He also photographed them and their witnesses as they entered the courtroom in a traffic case.

You see, Sheriff Taylor, not to be confused with Andy, began noticing anti-government sentiment creeping into the Republican Party around 1995. Then, last January, when Lesley White questioned the legality of her speeding ticket, it didn’t take the former TV reporter-turned-cop long to put two plus two together. He worried that the couple might urge others to (gasp!) protest laws.

“If action is not taken to stem the wave of anti-government activity, we may see serious social problems ahead,” Sheriff Taylor has written.

To make his point, Taylor’s deputies arrested a former county Republican official for driving with an improper license tag.

“It’s not like I’m Chicken Little running around,” the sheriff explained. “Timothy McVeigh drove a car without a tag.”

Anyone who disbelieves that America has all the potential to turn itself rapidly into a fascist police state ought to consider the mentality of the Sheriff Taylors, the Greenville zoners and the Justice Department attorneys who brought the case against the pro-life activists.

There’s a climate being created. There’s a conspiracy at work, all right. But it’s not anti-government activists we need to worry about. Nor is it Bible study leaders. And anti-abortion protesters aren’t a threat to our freedom, either.

At the peril of winding up on lots of enemies lists — from the White House to Anderson County, South Carolina — I’ll say it: The real organized crime in this country is being perpetrated by government.

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