ACLU lawsuit shows wisdom in personhood’s alternative approach to sanctuary cities

By Sarah Quale — The pro-life sanctuary city movement in America includes multiple factions using different strategies to achieve the same goal—to protect pre-born children from abortion in our own communities, while exerting the constitutional right to self-governance by defying the unjust ruling of Roe v. Wade. However, a recent ACLU lawsuit against seven sanctuary cities in Texas is exposing the vulnerabilities in Texas’s strategy and showing the effectiveness of an alternative approach.


Characteristic of all truly grassroots efforts, the sanctuary city movement in America has multiple factions working in parallel, and sometimes in partnership, to achieve the same goal. Both conservative and liberal groups have pursued sanctuary cities to defy at the local and state levels what they consider unjust laws and court decisions at the federal level—liberals for illegal immigration and marijuana legalization and conservatives for gun rights and protection of the pre-born. But the pro-life sanctuary city movement is beginning to experience challenges that the Personhood Alliance believes need to be mitigated now, as efforts to protect the right to life at the local level move forward.

Two different strategies

Two major pro-life groups are making headlines for leading organized efforts to create pro-life sanctuary cities: The Personhood Alliance’s national Sanctuaries for Life initiative and an ordinance strategy in Texas, led by Sanctuaries for the Unborn. Other sanctuary cities have emerged outside of these organized efforts, in New Mexico and Utah. In February, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Texas Equal Access (TEA) Fund and the Lilith Fund that challenges Sanctuaries for the Unborn’s efforts in seven cities in Texas.

The ACLU’s lawsuit alleges the language of the sanctuary city ordinances, modeled after the first one passed in Waskom, Texas, is unconstitutionally vague, prohibits the abortion-funding organizations from “exercising their freedoms of speech and assembly” and “levies punishment on plaintiffs without trial.” The ACLU’s punishment claim is based on the section of the ordinances that specifically names several abortion advocacy organizations, including the two funders, and declares them to be “criminal organizations.”

So what do the Texas ordinances actually do, and will they be effective in protecting pre-born children at the local level?

The ordinances in Texas:

  • Require Roe to be overturned first before enforcement can occur
  • Allow relatives of an aborted child to sue for damages, with an exemption for the mother
  • Carve out exceptions for rape and incest and “life of the mother”

The Personhood Alliance believes this strategy presents a risk to the pro-life sanctuary movement and offers an alternative approach for leaders and activists to consider.

Sanctuaries must not wait for Roe

Even though Waskom’s model ordinance declares:

“The Supreme Court erred in Roe v. Wade when it said that pregnant women have a constitutional right to abort their pre-born children…Roe is a lawless and illegitimate act of judicial usurpation, which violates the Tenth Amendment by trampling the reserved powers of the States, and denies the people of each State a Republican Form of Government by imposing abortion policy through judicial decree.”

The ordinance also clearly states:

“Neither the City of Waskom, nor any of its officers or employees, nor any district or county attorney, nor any executive or administrative officer or employee of any state or local governmental entity, shall take any steps to enforce this ordinance against a person or entity that commits an unlawful act unless and until the Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), and permits states and municipalities to once again enforce abortion prohibitions.”

In response to the ACLU’s lawsuit, Director of Right to Life East Texas, Mark Lee Dickson, told the Federalist, “These ordinances do not violate the ‘undue burden’ standard established in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, which says government regulations cannot put a ‘substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.’”

Texas Right to Life responded similarly in a press release: “In passing the ordinance, cities acted within their constitutional rights to self-governance and within the scope of current U.S. Supreme Court abortion jurisprudence.”

The Personhood Alliance asserts that the constitutional right to self-governance is in direct contradiction to remaining within the scope of current abortion jurisprudence.

We encourage leaders of other pro-life sanctuary cities to consider that defiance of the unjust Roe decision is at the very heart of the efforts we’re all pursuing. The pro-life movement must not continue to bow to a tyrannical judiciary. At the same time, we must also be strategic in our efforts to educate our citizens and build support for sanctuaries before subjecting our courageous city officials to direct legal challenges.

Sanctuaries must address controversial questions

According to Waskom’s model ordinance, any surviving relative of the aborted child, including the child’s mother, can sue for damages for the abortion. Relatives can sue abortionists, pharmacists who provide abortifacient drugs (including emergency contraception), and anyone who instructs a woman in performing a self-managed abortion. They can also sue anyone who “aids and abets an abortion,” including those who transport a woman to an abortion facility, knowingly provide funds for an abortion, or coerce a woman into an abortion against her will.

The mother cannot be sued for aborting her child.

The question of whether a woman can be prosecuted for aborting her child has been rigorously researched and answered in this article. The question of whether a woman should be prosecuted drives much controversy and requires careful consideration.

The Personhood Alliance believes this will be a critical question, among many others, as pro-life sanctuary city efforts move forward. Thus, we encourage leaders to consider the importance of educating their churches and communities on highly controversial issues before passing legally binding ordinances that protect pre-born children equally under the law.

Sanctuaries must not make exceptions

Waskom’s model ordinance includes an exception for rape and incest and the widely misunderstood “life of the mother” argument. Some of the ordinances that followed in other cities removed the exceptions. Dickson explained that exceptions were included “to force a reckoning with the procedure of abortion itself, preventing a judgment based only on the absence of exceptions.” He and others who are driving the ordinance strategy say they hope to challenge Roe v. Wade and win.

However, Roe v. Wade originated in a Texas case that included exceptions. It was the exceptions in that case, as well as legal immunity for the mother, that ultimately led to the Supreme Court’s decision. Watch the brief video below to hear actual audio from the Roe v. Wade proceedings, when justices Stewart, White, and Burger acknowledged that personhood was central to the case.

Naturally, the justices then questioned the notion of personhood and the equal rights of the pre-born precisely because some were exempted from protection in the Texas law. This clear diversion from principles led to the legalization of abortion nationwide by nullifying all state laws in place at the time.

Roe stripped legal personhood from pre-born children. Thus, we believe all efforts to “overturn” Roe must specifically restore personhood and provide equal protection under the law, without exception.

But the larger question here is whether sanctuary efforts in particular should be aimed at overturning Roe, instead of defying it, because “defiance of the unjust law” is at the very core of a sanctuary effort.

A principled, steady approach to pro-life sanctuary cities

The unjust, unconstitutional Roe decision directly defies the Declaration of Independence, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, most state constitutions, and more importantly, the law of God:  You shall not murder (Exodus 20:13).

A sanctuary city, therefore, must promote and defend the Divine right to life—from fertilization to natural death, without exception—within its local jurisdiction. A sanctuary city upholds the U.S. Constitution and submits to God and His law. It does not follow the federal government’s requirement to permit the killing of innocent human beings by waiting for Roe to be dismantled.

In addition, the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution grants to the States and to the People powers “not delegated to the United States.” Specifically, the Tenth Amendment grants the power to establish and enforce laws protecting the welfare, safety, and health of the public. A sanctuary city uses its Tenth Amendment power to protect the welfare, safety, and health of its people, born and pre-born, by ignoring the unjust, unconstitutional Roe decision and all its precedents.

In order to be successful in this effort, a sanctuary city must work to build a coalition of local churches, businesses, pro-life ministries, and city/county government to engage in specific, tangible actions that build and sustain support networks that serve men and women who are vulnerable to abortion. In particular, the Church must be empowered to reclaim charity and share the Gospel, which has inspired the political and cultural changes that have been necessary in ending the greatest injustices in history.

The wisdom of risk mitigation

Allowing ourselves to remain subject to the tyranny of Roe and all its precedents distances us from our goal to protect all human beings equally under the law. We must not invite legal challenges without substantial support networks in place at the local level and without specific, strategic plans to protect local officials who take a courageous and principled stand for life. A phased approach to pro-life sanctuary cities:

  • First establishes a foundation for future enforcement in the form of a city or county resolution that cannot be legally challenged
  • Focuses next on building local coalitions between churches and organizations, educating the community on the personhood of pre-born children, and preparing for the passing of legally binding ordinances
  • Passes local ordinances and statutes that prevent abortions from being performed and/or funded within the jurisdiction, only after the community has matured in its embrace of a culture of life and is prepared to legally stand its ground

This approach permits a groundswell to build, while protecting communities from the legal challenges that burden and often stymie other approaches, like the ordinances now subject to the ACLU lawsuit in Texas.

We believe a phased approach that declares the personhood of pre-born children is strategically, legally, and morally sound, and therefore, our affiliates are currently implementing it across the country. We acknowledge the courage of all those who have worked to advance pro-life sanctuary city efforts and pray that we can unite on principles as these efforts move forward.

For more information about the Personhood Alliance’s three-step Sanctuaries for Life initiative, click here.

Sarah Quale is president of Personhood Alliance Education, founder of Educe® online learning, and author of the Foundations online pro-life curriculum. She is an award-winning curriculum and instructional designer who has worked for over 20 years in corporate, academic, and ministerial environments.

Scroll to top