Pro-Life Activists Allowed to Continue With Prayer, Protest Outside N.C. Clinic

Local residents in North Carolina will be able to continue their peaceful protest in front of an abortion clinic after city lawyers agreed to a preliminary injunction on Monday in response to a lawsuit.

The Thomas More Society, representing the plaintiffs, and attorneys for the city of Jacksonville pledged to work together toward a resolution of the lawsuit, which arose after residents were denied the right to pray and peacefully protest outside of Crist Clinic for Women, a Jacksonville abortion facility.

“We are pleased the city of Jacksonville has agreed to allow the demonstrators to continue their ministry during the lawsuit. This is a big victory for the First Amendment rights of pro-life people everywhere,” Peter Breen, executive director and legal counsel for the Thomas More Society, said in a statement.

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“We are hopeful for a successful resolution of this lawsuit that will protect First Amendment rights for the long term.”

The plaintiffs, a group of local citizens, had filed a complaint against the city, stating that their rights were violated when city officials revoked their permit to protest in front of Crist Clinic, which provided chemical and surgical abortions during the first and second trimesters of pregnancy.

Authorities had initially granted the group a permit to hold a public vigil on the public right of way at the clinic, providing no limitations as to where demonstrators could stand on the sidewalk. They only asked that the group not block the sidewalk.

After the permit, filed by Dr. Bartolo Spano, was approved, pro-life advocates began holding their vigil outside of the clinic, offering prayers, fasting, witnessing, and offering alternatives to those seeking abortions.

One of the goals of the residents was to be visible to persons entering and leaving the building in order to communicate directly and personally to them.

But almost immediately after the group first gathered in April, officers came to the scene in response to complaints from the workers inside the clinic. They, however, found no fault with the permit and left after inspection.

Soon after a different pair of officers arrived asking Dr. Spano and his group to move his protest to the back of the clinic, near another clinic that did not perform abortions, for no specific reason. At the new site, protesters would not be able to be seen by people leaving or entering the Crist Clinic building.

Dr. Spano later met with the officer, Lt. Sean Magill, to inform him that the Municipal Code’s definition of “sidewalk” recognized both paved and unpaved public rights of way for demonstration purposes. Magill said that he would discuss the matter with his supervisor.

Spano later received a letter from the Jacksonville chief of police, revoking the previously issued permit. The letter also informed him that his group would not be able to assemble where they had originally gathered, on the public right of way near the front due to “concerns related to public safety.”

City authorities explained that vehicles driving around the clinic might strike any of the demonstrators and also revealed that the city had a policy limiting picketing to paved sidewalks.

Spano filed an appeal with the city council, which affirmed the chief of police’s decision to revoke the permit, resulting in a lawsuit by the plaintiffs who felt their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. Pro-life activists also felt that city officials unconstitutionally applied a public ordinance against the group, restricting free speech to paved sidewalks, an unwritten policy.

Looking to work together now, the city attorneys and the Thomas More Society agreed to a preliminary injunction that will temporarily allow prayer and demonstration to resume at the entrance to the clinic until the city amended its Parade and Public Assembly Ordinance for a group of 12 or less people.

The preliminary injunction was reached before U.S. Judge Terance W. Boyle on Monday.

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