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Court delivers 8-1 win to pro-life, other protesters

WASHINGTON (BP)–Pro-life leaders hailed the Supreme Court’s Feb. 26 decision in favor of anti-abortion activists as a triumph not only for their movement but also for the First Amendment rights of Americans.

The high court ruled in an 8-1 opinion a federal anti-racketeering law did not apply to protest activities at abortion clinics. The justices reversed a 2001 federal appeals court decision that found a network of pro-life demonstrators was guilty of violating federal and state extortion laws. The lower court also had endorsed a federal judge’s nationwide injunction barring pro-lifers from interfering with clinic business and with the rights of women seeking abortions.

Though the combined cases, Scheidler v. NOW and Operation Rescue v. NOW, involved anti-abortion actions, other social activists came to the aid of the pro-lifers. Organizations supporting the pro-life side in part or in whole through friend-of-the-court briefs included animal-rights and disability rights activists, death-penalty foes and anti-war protesters.

“This was really a serious constitutional issue of free speech and freedom of assembly,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “It was outrageous that a racketeering statute aimed like a rifle at organized crime was ever applied to peaceful demonstrators. This decision is a tremendous victory for Americans’ First Amendment freedom of speech and freedom of assembly protections and is underscored by the size of the majority.”

Jay Sekulow, counsel for Operation Rescue in the case, called the ruling a “tremendous victory for those who engage in social protests. The decision removes a cloud that has been hanging over the pro-life movement for 15 years. The ruling clearly shuts the door on using [the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] against the pro-life movement.”

The opinion brought to a close a case that began in 1986, when the National Organization for Women sued the Pro-life Action Network, led by Joseph Scheidler, and Operation Rescue, as well as leaders affiliated with the groups. NOW claimed the activists were part of a loose national group to which RICO, a law designed to thwart organized crime, applied because of the activists’ cooperative work against abortion clinics.

The Supreme Court ruled the pro-lifers did not violate the anti-racketeering law because their activities did not qualify as extortion. The protesters had not obtained property from abortion clinics or abortion rights advocates, the court ruled. The Hobbs Act, a federal, anti-extortion law, requires “not only the deprivation but also the acquisition of property” in order to reach the definition of extortion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion.

“There is no dispute in these cases that [the pro-lifers] interfered with, disrupted and in some instances completely deprived respondents of their ability to exercise their property rights,” Rehnquist wrote. “But even when their acts of interference and disruption achieved their ultimate goal of ‘shutting down’ a clinic that performed abortions, such acts did not constitute extortion because petitioners did not ‘obtain’ respondents’ property.”

The protesters may have been guilty of coercion, but that crime was not included in the Hobbs Act, the chief justice said.

Roy Englert, representing the pro-lifers, had made the same point to the justices in oral arguments in December. Their activity was a “classic example of coercion, not extortion,” Englert said. The pro-lifers had never disputed they participated in unlawful activity, such as trespassing, he also told the justices.

Because the court ruled the activists were not guilty of extortion, Rehnquist said the justices did not need to decide the second issue in the case — whether a federal court can issue an injunction under RICO at the request of a private party.

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, the lone dissenter, called the court’s opinion “murky,” contending federal judges had given “property” an “expansive construction” for decades. The “principal beneficiaries” of the decision will be “the class of professional criminals whose conduct persuaded Congress that the public needed federal protection from extortion,” Stevens wrote.

NOW President Kim Gandy described the ruling as “shocking,” saying the court’s majority “placed a higher value on tangible property than on women’s liberty.”

NOW and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America said they would use the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and all other legal means to thwart pro-life activists. FACE is a 1994 federal law that outlaws the use of force or the threat of force to interfere with a person seeking or providing an abortion. FACE was not affected by the court’s decision on RICO.

Pro-life activists, who have been faced with crippling fines under RICO, rejoiced at the ruling.

Flip Benham, national director of Operation Rescue, called it “a spectacular victory for those living out the gospel of Christ in the streets. NOW has done its worst to censor the gospel of Christ from abortion mills, and the Supreme Court has said, ‘Enough!’ The 8-1 decision is an overwhelming ‘Amen’ by the justices that the First Amendment to the Constitution applies to Christians and their message.”

Among those who signed onto briefs supporting the pro-life protesters’ arguments were not only anti-abortion groups but animal-right groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and The Fund for Animals; death-penalty opponents such as the Seamless Garment Network and Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; disability rights activists, such as Not Dead Yet and Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit, and anti-war groups, such as Pax Christi USA.

Individuals who signed onto a brief opposing the lower court’s application of extortion included anti-war priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, libertarian columnist Nat Hentoff, anti-death penalty activist Helen Prejean, and actor and liberal activist Martin Sheen. Philip Berrigan died two days after the case was argued before the high court.