COVID-19, the pro-life movement, and our constitutional rights

By Deborah Stilt — Selective targeting of sidewalk counselors and prayer supporters for arrest during the COVID-19 public health crisis is a violation of the constitutional rights of assembly, free speech, and religion. Yet, this is happening across the country, and we must demand it stop.

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In an alarming trend, pro-life sidewalk counselors and prayer supporters around the country have been arrested, or threatened with arrest, for supposedly violating “social distancing” guidelines and shelter-in-place orders. But photo and video footage from several different states shows pro-lifers are not in violation while they offer critical social services to abortion-vulnerable men and women.

In light of this evidence, we must ask bold questions: What is happening to our constitutional rights? Should the rights of certain groups be suspended during a health crisis? And why are state governments designating abortion as an “essential” service but alternative resources, support, and help as “non-essential”?

Sign our petition with LifeSiteNews to stand with sidewalk counselors across the nation who are being arrested and threatened with arrest as they attempt to rescue pre-born children from abortion. 
Our fundamental liberties are being threatened

The First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

In North Carolina, David Benham, founder of Cities4Life, was arrested Saturday, April 4th in Charlotte. Police officers confronted volunteers from Cities4Life for violating “social distancing” requirements. The volunteers were well within the 10-person group limit and remained 6 feet apart from one another as they reached out to men and women entering the abortion facility. The arrest occurred despite the fact that state and city stay-at-home orders list federally recognized public charities that offer social services as “essential.”

Benham noted that, of the more than 1,400 COVID-related complaints the city has received, eight arrests have been made; all of them were in front of the abortion facility. Benham told police on video:

 “The only reason you’re not going to the Home Depot with a thousand people there, the only reason you’re not going to the park with 1,500 people there, is because I’m standing in front of an abortion clinic.”

Senator Ted Cruz weighed in on the incident on Twitter:

“My friend David Benham was unconstitutionally arrested today in NC for peacefully providing pregnancy counseling outside an abortion clinic. If NC deems abortion “essential,” then pregnancy care services are as well. This is WRONG; Governor Cooper should be ashamed.” 

“This is an unconstitutional arrest. @BenhamBrothers exercising core First Amendment rights. PEACEFULLY. In a way fully consistent w/public safety. Because elected Dems are pro-abortion, they are abusing their power—in a one-sided way—to silence pregnancy counselors.”

In Columbia, South Carolina, police cited pro-life sidewalk counselors hours before the governor’s “home or work” order even went into effect. Governor Henry McMaster announced in a press conference that the order would commence Tuesday, April 7th, at 5:00 pm. Mark Baumgartner, who heads the evangelical pro-life outreach organization, A Moment of Hope, was leading a group of sidewalk counselors outside a Columbia Planned Parenthood facility early Tuesday afternoon.  The participants were standing 25 feet apart on the sidewalk, more than satisfying the 6 foot “social distancing” requirement, yet they were confronted by police and ordered to leave. Baumgartner showed the officers a letter from City Attorney Teresa Knox stating that “the order for the City of Columbia does not restrict religious activities,” but they ignored it and threatened the group with arrest if they did not disperse immediately. 

Cheri Britt, director of Life Ministries in Virginia, was given a criminal citation by police officers for standing on a public sidewalk near her mobile ultrasound RV, where she offers women free ultrasounds and baby supplies. Officers stated that she was in violation of the Governor Northam’s stay-at-home ordinance, despite the fact the order specifically exempts “the provision of health care or medical services,” and Ms. Britt was providing needed medical care for at-risk moms and their babies.

In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf, a former Planned Parenthood clinic escort, ordered “closure of all non-life sustaining businesses.” Despite abortion being the one business that actively takes life, abortion clinics were allowed to remain open. The attacks on pro-life outreach have been statewide, and sidewalk counselors have been threatened with arrest at several pregnancy centers. Jim Schneller, member of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Pro-Life Union, said the harassment by police has emboldened certain abortion facility employees who have kicked down signs, grabbed pamphlets, and verbally assaulted sidewalk counselors. Pro-life calls for assistance from the police have fallen on deaf ears. Instead, the police have demanded that the sidewalk advocates leave or face arrest.

These are just a few examples of what is becoming a common occurrence throughout the United States.

First Amendment violations

While states have broad powers to protect people during a public health crisis, strict scrutiny requires this to be accomplished using the most narrowly tailored, or least restrictive means. Any laws that single out churches or religious groups for special restrictions not only violate the First Amendment, but also contravene due process requirements.

Religious organizations are not entitled to special treatment, but they are guaranteed fair treatment.

Today, our governors and legislators are arbitrarily deciding what is “essential” and what is not.  Abortion centers remain open, while churches and charity organizations assisting vulnerable populations are closed, their members arrested and fined, and their organizations threatened with permanent closure. These actions directly reflect political leaders’ personal opinions and unfairly target people of faith

This is clearly unconstitutional.

Despite the opposition, prolife outreach is legal – even under shelter-at-home orders.

Sidewalk counseling is essential and protected

In order to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19, health experts have emphasized the importance of getting outside for fresh air and exercise. Every shelter-in-place order to date specifically deems being outside an “essential activity.” There is nothing to prevent outside activity from taking place on the public sidewalk in front of abortion facilities, provided recommended hygiene and social distancing measures are followed. Additionally, many orders include exceptions for organizations providing essential care to vulnerable populations. Pro-life outreach falls within this category. 

While sidewalk counselors may be met with resistance, and even arrest, they are protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1871 – a federal statute (42 U.S.C. § 1983) that allows people to sue the government for civil rights violations. It applies when someone acting under state or local law has deprived a person of rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

As a population under historically heavy opposition, sidewalk counselors are also specifically protected from violations of their free speech rights, according to the 2014 Supreme Court case McCullen v. Coakley. In that case, the court ruled unanimously that buffer zone laws that expand the distance between sidewalk counselors and abortion facilities are a violation of First Amendment rights.

Yet, today, sidewalk counselors and prayer supporters are selectively targeted for being on the sidewalk at all.

We must persevere

While many people are acting in good faith to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the propensity for power grabs at this time cannot be understated.

Americans must be vigilant and recognize that any attempt to erode our constitutional rights is an attack on free and open society as we know it. Now, more than ever, maintaining limits on government power is critical. 

COVID-19 is an open-ended threat with no clear end in sight, inviting any measures taken to remain in place long after the danger has passed. In light of this, the current silencing of pro-life voices is cause for great alarm. Our fundamental First Amendment liberties—freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the right to peaceably assemble—must remain sacrosanct, even in (or, especially in) a crisis.

Sign our petition with LifeSiteNews to stand with sidewalk counselors across the nation who are being arrested and threatened with arrest as they attempt to rescue pre-born children from abortion. 

Deborah Stilt is the social media coordinator for the Personhood Alliance and has been active in pro-life media for several years. But most importantly, she’s a California mom who is fighting against the lies of the culture and for the protection of every human being without exception.

3 comments on “COVID-19, the pro-life movement, and our constitutional rights

  1. Dave P says:

    As always, you’ve described the situation perfectly. I’m not a conspiracy nut, but all of this doesn’t pass the smell test. This is becoming a radical Left dream come true. They have a Political Party and a corrupt media who want to get their power back at all costs.
    You’re correct. This is far scarier than any strain of flu. Thank God we have a President who’s not intimidated by this anti Liberty trash.
    They will be dealt with accordingly. At the ballot box.

  2. Rick says:

    Excellent article! Lawsuits against the elected officials who impose these unconstitutional actions MUST be filed immediately and taken all the way to the Supreme Court.. Until the mayor’s, city council’s and other decision makers have to justify their actions in court and pay significant personal financial judgements against them, they will continue to trample on our rights. We must not let them!

  3. Mark says:

    Deborah Stilt has (in this article) CLEARLY laid out the dangers that an “open-ended” public Health Crisis present to the exercise of our Constitutionally guaranteed Rights, AND documented how the ‘quarantine’ with its designation of “essential” and “non-essential” works, is being used by pro-abortion militants to protect their FAVORED “business”, while denying the Rights of their less favored opponents.

    This is an important read.

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