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Federal prosecution of abortion protestors challenged by Thomas More Society

A group of protesters lined the hallway leading to the Carafem abortion clinic March 5, 2021.

CHICAGO (BP) – When Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land, 22 anti-abortion protestors from six states entered the multi-tenant Providence Medical Pavilion and took the elevator to the second floor.

There they sat in double file in the hallway in front of the single door entrance to abortion and birth control provider Carafem Health Center Clinic, sang hymns, prayed, read Scripture and livestreamed their protest on Facebook. Some left at the request of police, but eight adults and four children remained, Mt. Juliet, Tenn., police reported after the March 5, 2021, event.

Protesters sat in front of the entrance to the clinic, singing hymns and praying.

The actions of six of those who remained were found in a jury trial to violate the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act passed in 1993. Six were convicted in January of violating the act with a sentencing date of July 2. Maximum prison sentences of 10 and a half years, three years of supervised release and fines up to $260,000 are in play.

Enter the Thomas More Society, a Catholic pro-bono law firm that has litigated successfully for abortion protestors across the country since 1998. The federal FACE Act is among the law firm’s latest targets in the pro-life movement.

Paul Vaughn, one of the six convicted of violating the act at the Mt. Juliet clinic, is among the firm’s clients in its opposition of the FACE Act. The goal is for Congress to overturn the act.

“This is not simply any other political campaign,” Thomas More Society founder Tom Brejcha said in a Feb. 7 webcast updating the law firm’s fight. “This is a moral campaign, a moral imperative that we somehow redeem this culture.”

The Justice Department applies the FACE Act in conjunction with conspiracy laws to ratchet up penalties to 11 years in prison, Brejcha said.

“This is a perversion of our law, in our view,” he said. “We want to defend these FACE defendants aggressively as possible and ultimately, sooner than later, get this law declared unconstitutional. Because it’s not a regulation of Congress; this is moral protest, political protest. So when you say interstate commerce is somehow affected by these protests, it isn’t right.”

Vaughn and his five co-defendants were found guilty of violating the FACE Act, as well as conspiracy to prevent the right to access abortion protected under the FACE Act.

Paul Vaughn (center) with his wife Bethany and their 11 children. Vaughn’s attorneys intend to appeal his convention after his sentencing in July.

The FACE Act also applies to pro-life clinics, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“The FACE Act is not about abortions,” the department wrote at justice.gov. “The statute protects all patients, providers, and facilities that provide reproductive health services, including pro-life pregnancy counseling services and any other pregnancy support facility providing reproductive health care.”

Thomas More has among its clients Lauren Handy, convicted under the FACE Act in August 2023 of blocking access to an abortion clinic in Washington in October 2020, along with four other protestors. Previously, in March 2020, police found five fetuses in Handy’s refrigerator – fetal remains she said she retrieved with 110 other such remains from a medical-waste-truck driver outside the Washington clinic.

Handy took the remains from the truck with the permission of the driver, Thomas More Society Senior Counsel Martin Cannon said during the webinar. No charges were filed regarding the possession of the fetuses.

Thomas More successfully defended Mark Houck from FACE Act felony charges in January in Pennsylvania, stemming from an abortion clinic protest in 2021. Police accused Houck of assaulting a 72-year-old clinic volunteer on the sidewalk. A jury found Houck not guilty Jan. 30.

The FACE Act, according to U.S. Code, criminalizes certain actions involving the use or threat of force to intimidate persons seeking or providing reproductive health services; and prohibits anyone from intentionally injuring, by force or physical obstruction, anyone lawfully exercising or seeking to exercise the First Amendment right of religious freedom at a place of religious worship.

Thomas More plans to appeal Vaughn’s conviction after sentencing. The Centerville, Tenn., father of 11 joined the webinar with his wife Bethany.

Others convicted along with Vaughn, but not represented by Thomas More, are Coleman Boyd of Bolton, Miss.; Chet Gallagher of Lebanon, Tenn.; Heather Idoni and Calvin Zastrow, both of Michigan, and Dennis Green of Cumberland, Va. Others charged with FACE Act violations in the Mt. Juliet protest are awaiting trial.

The webinar is available here.