New York Attorney Gen. Eric Schneiderman has filed a federal lawsuit against a coalition of Christian pro-life protesters who've been accused of threatening patients, staff and family members outside of an abortion clinic in New York City for years.
The attorney general's office announced on Wednesday that it filed a federal harassment lawsuit against 14 pro-life activists who it claims repeatedly "harassed, threatened, and menaced patients, families, escorts, and clinic staff" at the Choices Women's Medical Center in Jamaica Queens "every Saturday morning for at least five years."
The lawsuit states that the defendants are a "loose alliance of individuals" associated with the Church at the Rock in Brooklyn, Grace Baptist Church in Woodhaven, Bright Dawn Ministries in Brooklyn, and a group called Helpers of God's Precious Infants. Other protesters with no church or organizational affiliation are also listed in the lawsuit.
"Since 2012, protesters have subjected incoming patients to a barrage of unwanted physical contact, as well as verbal abuse, threats of harm, and lies about the clinic's hours and its services," the lawsuit alleges. "Protesters descend on approaching patients to harangue them, sometimes pinning them against the clinic's exterior wall or parking meters, and even forcing them into the street and oncoming traffic as they try to escape the protesters. Some protesters go so far as to touch or grab at patients to get their attention and force printed anti-choice materials on them."
The lawsuit further claims that pro-life protesters have crowded patients arriving by car and have used "their bodies to block the passenger-side doors and thrusting their heads and hands through open windows in an effort to force their literature inside."
"Protesters deliberately collide into volunteer escorts who attempt to shield patients from unwanted physical contact and vitriol, pushing and shoving patients in the process," the lawsuit adds.
The Thomas More Society, a law firm known for defending pro-life activists and groups, says it will represent the defendants associated with the Church at the Rock.
Andrew Bath, general counsel for the Thomas More Society, said in a statement that the members of the church "peacefully" counsel women who are thinking of going through with an abortion.
"They conduct themselves reasonably and compassionately and offer information about abortion alternatives to those willing to listen," Bath said. "This is the exercise of their core First Amendment rights and is an activity that takes place on the public sidewalk, the traditional venue for expression concerning important ideas and societal issues."
Bath argues that the lawsuit "seeks to deny our clients their fundamental First Amendment rights and is without factual or legal basis."
"We will vigorously defend our clients' right to continue to peacefully deliver a pro-life message to abortion-minded women on the public sidewalk, and will seek dismissal of the state of New York's meritless attempt to deny our clients the rights guaranteed them by our Constitution," Bath said.
The attorney general's office also published a surveillance video from last October that purports to show the pro-life protesters crowding a woman and child as they entered the facility.
The lawsuit also claims that the defendants violated the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, New York State Clinic Access Act and the New York City Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act. Additionally, it asks the court to force the defendants to pay damages and civil penalties.
"The tactics used to harass and menace Choices' patients, families, volunteers, and staff are not only horrifying — they're illegal," Schneiderman said in a statement. "The law guarantees women the right to control their own bodies and access the reproductive health care they need, without obstruction."