Peaceful pro-life protesters convicted, face big fines, 10-year sentences

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(photo: CBN)

By Steve Warren —

After a week-long trial, a federal jury in Nashville, Tennessee found six pro-life demonstrators guilty Tuesday of violating the so-called Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) for blocking access to an abortion clinic in a nearby city three years ago.

Chester Gallagher, Paul Vaughn, Heather Idoni, Calvin Zastrow, Coleman Boyd, and Dennis Green were each charged with one count of violating the FACE Act and one count of engaging in a “conspiracy against rights.” They each face up to 10 1/2 years in prison and fines of up to $260,000. Sentencing hearings will take place on July 2.

The FACE Act prohibits “violent, threatening, damaging, and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain, or provide reproductive health services.”

A federal grand jury initially indicted 11 people in October 2022.  Four remaining defendants are scheduled to subsequently stand trial for misdemeanor violations of the FACE Act. An additional original defendant turned state’s witness and was not prosecuted.

The jury’s decision marks the latest development in a case that has been closely watched by conservative groups, who have accused the federal government of unfairly targeting abortion opponents by using a 1994 federal law designed to protect abortion clinics from obstruction and threats.

Pro-abortion supporters say the FACE Act is more critical than ever in protecting abortion providers now that the decision concerning the legality of abortion has been left to state legislatures.

At issue in this latest case is the March 5, 2021 “blockade” held outside an abortion clinic in Mount Juliet, 17 miles east of Nashville, almost a year before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. At the time, abortion was still legal in Tennessee. It is now mostly banned there.

The trial featured video evidence of the group’s “blockade” of the Carafem Health Center Clinic. One video posted to Facebook shows a group of pro-life activists, ranging in age from children to elderly adults, standing and sitting in the hallway outside the clinic, singing and praying. At least five protestors, including an elderly woman sitting in a wheelchair, are seen sitting or standing in front of the door to the clinic. A police officer walks down the hallway and tells the group to take their protest outside on the sidewalk. Some of the people leave after the officer’s warning. Some of the others stay in the hallway.

Prosecutors said other videos from that day showed people blocking the clinic’s entrances and others attempting to engage with police as a delay tactic.

“These defendants knowingly chose to violate laws they disagreed with,” said U.S. Attorney Henry C. Leventis in a statement. He called the ruling “a reminder that we cannot pick and choose which laws we follow.”

The attorneys representing the defendants said they plan on appealing the convictions.

“This was a peaceful demonstration by entirely peaceable citizens—filled with prayer, hymn-singing, and worship—oriented toward persuading expecting mothers not to abort their babies,” said Steve Crampton, Thomas More Society senior counsel and attorney for Paul Vaughn. “Unfortunately, the Biden Department of Justice decided to characterize Paul Vaughn’s peaceful actions as a felony ‘conspiracy against rights,’ to intimidate and punish Paul and other pro-life people and people of faith.”

“This is a frustrating setback, for Paul, for his family, and for the extended pro-life community, which has rallied support for Paul from the day of his arrest in front of his wife and children by heavily armed FBI agents, on through the trial,” Crampton said.

“The Biden Department of Justice’s pattern of arresting and prosecuting peaceful pro-life advocates is disturbing,” the Thomas More Society attorney added.

As CBN News reported, pro-life activist Mark Houck was also arrested in September 2022 and charged by the Department of Justice with counts of violating the FACE Act after he pushed a pro-abortion volunteer who was harassing his young son outside an abortion clinic in Philadelphia.

Houck was acquitted on all charges in January 2023. If the jury sided with the Biden administration, Houck would have faced up to 11 years in prison and a $350,000 fine.

Houck and his wife previously told The Daily Signal they believe they were targeted by the Biden DOJ to intimidate, silence, and scare the family for their pro-life work—praying outside abortion clinics for the women headed inside to abort their unborn babies.

Houck and his wife Ryan-Marie are now fighting back. Last November they sued the Department of Justice seeking $1.1 million for malicious prosecution, retaliatory prosecution, false arrest, abuse of process, and assault. Ryan-Marie is seeking $3.25 million in damages for herself and her children. — CBN

 

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