Should the type of nonviolent, political protest made famous by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. be prosecuted as Mafia-style extortion?

An unusual coalition of about 70 activists and groups – including actor Martin Sheen and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – is lined up behind pro-life advocates as the Supreme Court considers that question today.

The activists have filed a “friend of the court brief” on behalf of abortion protesters held liable by a federal court on racketeering and extortion charges. That landmark 1998 case was the first to apply RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, against the activities of members of the pro-life movement.

The National Organization for Women filed the original federal anti-trust suit in 1986 in order to “protect women and clinic staff from a violent campaign to close abortion clinics nationwide,” according to organization President Kim Gandy.

Joseph Scheidler, national director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, along with two colleagues and the group Operation Rescue, are appealing the 1998 judgment for “treble damages” – nearly $258,000 – awarded to a clinic in Milwaukee and in Delaware as class representatives for nearly all U.S. abortion providers. One year later, a nationwide RICO injunction was awarded to abortion providers and to NOW.

The high court is reviewing the case today at 11:00 a.m. on two points. The first is whether a private party, such as an abortion clinic, is entitled to an injunction under RICO. The second is whether political or religious protest, including sit-ins and obstructing a customer’s access to a business, should be defined as “extortion.”

What is legitimate protest?

Scheidler, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965, insists that, like the fight for racial equality, his battle against abortion is rooted in non-violent direct action.

“We’re saying that sitting in a restaurant, sitting in front of a bus, something that impedes the progress, is legitimate protest,” he told WorldNetDaily. “It’s not racketeering. We’re not gaining anything.”

NOW contends, however, that it has evidence of violent tactics used by the protesters. Earlier this year, the group submitted accounts of 17 alleged incidences in a legal brief introduced in opposition to Scheidler’s petition for the Supreme Court review.

Those claims will not be under review today because the high court is mandated only to address legal rulings, not direct evidence. But Scheidler and his lawyers insist, nevertheless, that NOW witnesses gave false testimony.

Now in its 17th year of litigation, the case began in June 1986 when NOW filed a federal lawsuit against Scheidler and two other pro-life activists. NOW charged that Scheidler and his colleagues interfered with interstate commerce in an attempt to shut down abortion clinics.

Three years later, NOW incorporated RICO violations into its complaint and expanded the scope to a class-action suit that included every woman in the United States seeking an abortion – past, present or future – and all abortion clinics. Operation Rescue, two members of Scheidler’s group – Tim Murphy and Andy Scholberg – and another 100 alleged “co-conspirators” also were named as defendants.

Scheidler sees protest actions such as blocking clinic doorways as civil disobedience, but not extortion.

“There are methods of stopping the blocking by having you arrested; we accept that,” he told WND. “But not a RICO suit that takes away our home and our business and our possibility of making future money, or any plans, or keeping insurance. We think that’s oppressive.”

So far, the litigation has cost him $400,000 in damages alone, he said, noting that he has been forced to put his house in escrow and transfer his insurance to the name of the plaintiff.

“My business is in jeopardy, everything I own,” said Scheidler. “Plus I’ve had to borrow $70,000 to make up the bond so we could make the appeal.”

In a 1998 statement that referred to the Scheidler case, NOW’s former president, Patricia Ireland, said, “We will continue our litigation strategy until the terrorists are bankrupt and out of business.”

Ireland also was a NOW attorney working on the case before she became head of the organization.

Scheidler said he has not been forced to declare bankruptcy yet, but notes that Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., tried to add an amendment to the recently passed bankruptcy bill that would have barred pro-life activists from using that option.

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