State ‘willing to twist’ law to shut down street ministry

By Leo Hohmann

pro life activists protest abortion clinic in Jamaica Queens NY
Pro-life activists protest outside Choices abortion clinic in Jamaica, Queens, New York, where they have gathered on weekends for the past several years until New York Attorney General Eric Schniederman sought to stop them.

A group of pro-life Christians remain squarely in the sights of New York state’s Democrat attorney general, who has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to quash their right to freely assembly and share their opinions with their fellow Americans.

Eric Schneiderman filed the suit in June against a group of Christians affiliated with the Rock Church in Queens and it remains an open case in the federal court system.

Now Liberty Counsel has filed a motion to dismiss the suit and allow the Christians to return to their street preaching ministry. They regularly counsel and preach on public sidewalks outside a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in the Jamaica area of Queens.

Liberty Counsel represents Scott Fitchett Jr., one of the 12 defendants in the case and a 37-year-old pre-K teacher who spends his Saturdays preaching outside the Choices Women’s Medical Center in his hometown. His stated goal is “to persuade women to change their minds about seeking an abortion by communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Liberty Counsel’s motion for dismissal, filed Oct. 6, includes Fitchett’s opposition to the attorney general’s motion for an immediate injunction to stop Fitchett’s sidewalk preaching on the public sidewalk outside of the clinic.

Fitchett says he has “never attempted or intended” to use force or intimidation to persuade any woman to change her mind about seeking an abortion.

The filing states that Schneiderman’s legal action cannot stand because it targets conduct explicitly protected by the First Amendment.

‘Un-American rhetoric?’

The Attorney General’s lawsuit is based on the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, also called FACE, and similar New York laws. Enacted by Congress to prevent actual violence and physical obstruction of abortion clinic entrances, Schneiderman is using FACE to shut down pro-life speech, said a statement from Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver.

“Schneiderman’s disdain for free speech in general, and the pro-life message in particular, was made clear in his press conference announcing the lawsuit, where he said, ‘We are not a nation where you can choose your point of view,’ and that pro-life Christians ‘run their mouths’ with ‘unlawful, un-American rhetoric,'” according to the Liberty Counsel release.

“It is obvious Attorney General Schneiderman abhors the Christian, pro-life message of our client and is willing to twist the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act to silence any opposition to abortion,” said Roger Gannam, Liberty Counsel’s assistant vice president of legal affairs. “It is inexcusable for the highest legal officer of the State of New York to declare war on free speech and the pro-life message, and we hope the court will turn back this assault on our most cherished liberties.”

Abortion protesters from the Rock Church demonstrate outside of the Choices abortion center in Queens, New York, in 2017. [Photo from court filings]
Abortion protesters from the Rock Church demonstrate outside of the Choices abortion center in Queens, New York, in 2017. [Photo from court filings]
Allegations of harassment of patients

The pro-life ministry takes place weekly outside of the Choices abortion clinic on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, by members of the Brooklyn-based Church of the Rock, joined by Christians from a number of other churches.

Schneiderman alleges these Christians unlawfully harassed patients, families and clinic staff and physically obstruct them from entering the clinic.

Schneiderman, in a previous statement, called the pro-lifers’ tactics “horrifying” and “illegal.”

“The law guarantees women the right to control their own bodies and access the reproductive health care they need, without obstruction. We’ll do what it takes to protect those rights for women across New York,” he said.

The church members hold signs that show pictures of unborn babies in the womb with phrases like, “Am I Not Human? Were You Not Once Here Yourself?”

Another sign reads: “The body inside your body is not your body.”

Another sign pictured in the lawsuit shows a poster with a fetus torn from its mother’s womb and the words “this is not healthcare.”

The lawsuit claims the church members have reduced some women to tears, to the point where they need special counseling before they can receive the clinic’s services.

According to the lawsuit:

“Defendant Prisca Joseph routinely refers to the volunteer clinic escorts as ‘deathscorts’ and takes copious notes of what is happening outside the clinic, chronicling who enters, when they enter, and what they look like. On February 18, 2017, an escort observed her record the license plate number of a clinic staff person. On at least one occasion, Defendant Randall Doe chased a patient as she exited Choices and returned to her car parked more than a block away, hovering over her as she retrieved an item from her vehicle, and then following her back to the clinic.”

Read the full lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general against the Rock Church.

abortion protest at Choices clinic in Queens NYC 2017

But the church says it uses prayer and peaceful persuasion, not violence or intimidation.

“Our goal with every client – whether pregnant or seeking post abortion help – is to nurture their relationship with Jesus so that they can go out and share the Good News of freedom and forgiveness with others,” the church says on its website.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court on June 20. It claims the church is violating the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or 18 U.S.C. § 248(a)(1), and the NY Clinic Access Act, N.Y. Penal Law or § 240.70(l)(a)-(b).

The suit seeks to bar the defendants from protesting within 16 feet of the Choices abortion clinic or physically blocking or intimidating the women trying to reach the clinic to abort their babies.

Newsweek tries to influence case

Newsweek magazine did a one-sided article on the church’s pro-life ministry the day the suit was filed. In the article, headlined “Abortion in America: Protesters Face Harassment Suit in New York After Hurling Death Threats and Harming Women,” the magazine accused the church of “making death threats” against pregnant women going in for abortions, but the lawsuit never mentions any actual death threats, only referencing hearsay quotes that the attorney general interpreted as “threats of force.”

For instance, on April 16, 2016, defendant Ronald George allegedly warned clinic escorts, “On 9/11, 3,000 people didn’t realize they wouldn’t be coming home that day. You never know when you wake up in the morning that you might die.”

On Jan. 7, 2017, defendant Randall Doe allegedly referenced mass shootings and terrorist events in the news, mentioning the Jan. 6, 2017, Fort Lauderdale airport shooting and cautioning, “you never know when you are going to die.”

The Thomas More Society is representing the church.

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