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Peaceful, Legal Ways States, Churches, And Pro-Lifers Can Stop Abortion Radicals’ Violence

This essay was originally co-authored with Teresa Collett and published by The Federalist on May 10, 2022. Teresa S. Collett is a Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, where she directs the Pro-Life Center. 

Even if the Biden administration refuses to quell threats and intimidation, pro-lifers and religious believers have – and should use – the remedies that the law provides for them.

Pro-abortion groups this past week have called for increased lawlessness to express their opposition to the expected reversal of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. Apparently having failed to persuade either the court of the soundness of their legal position or Congress of the necessity of codifying Roe in a federal statute, these groups are committing, or threatening to commit, hate crimes targeting churches and worshippers. 

The real or intended victims of these outrages are not defenseless. The legal system affords them robust protections against violations of their right to free exercise of religion. These include both federal and state criminal and civil remedies and private civil actions under federal and state law.

Churches and congregants alike should make full use of our legal system to protect themselves against pro-abortion forces that are vandalizing church property and attempting to intimidate believers as they worship. Not only do they owe it to themselves to defend their religious liberty, they have a duty to the larger community to combat these unmistakable hate crimes.

To date, President Biden has failed to personally denounce these threats to religious liberty by the pro-abortion forces that are Democrats’ political allies and core constituents. So has his Justice Department, which was quick to condemn parents appearing at public school board meetings. An unnamed White House official made a meaningless comment, and Press Secretary Jen Psaki finally condemned “violence, threats, or vandalism” on Twitter Monday, but the president himself has yet to speak out against pro-abortionists’ recent violent tactics.

Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland should be publicly shamed if their inaction continues. And if the administration chooses to turn a blind eye as the legal rights of American believers are trashed, state attorneys general can and should fill the breach. 

Private persons can also bring tort actions under federal and state law, and if successful might obtain monetary damages in amounts that could be a significant blow to the pro-abortion movement and its (often undisclosed) donors.

Two Forms of Attack on Religious Liberty

The assaults on religious liberty are coming in two forms. One is the vandalization of church property, such as happened in Boulder, Colo., soon after the leak of the draft Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs. Vandals broke the windows and spray-painted over the doors of the Sacred Heart of Mary Church and left pro-abortion messages, including “keep your religion off our bodies” and “my body, my choice.”

Over the past two years, Colorado has seen a series of attacks (not all proclaiming pro-abortion views) on Catholic churches. These attacks include one last October on the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, and another in September on St. Louis Catholic Church in a Boulder suburb (involving pro-abortion graffiti). 

What is happening in Colorado unfortunately has been happening throughout the country. In January, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reported that there had been at least 129 attacks on Catholic churches in 35 states and the District of Columbia since May 2020. Secular sources like The Wall Street Journal have noted the increase in desecration of Catholic churches as well. If Roe is indeed overruled, expect worse. 

In a second line of attack, the shadowy pro-abortion group Ruth Sent Us has called, not only for demonstrations outside the homes of six Supreme Court justices, but also for the disruption of services in Catholic churches on Mother’s Day during Sunday mass. The group posted a message on Twitter, stating “Whether you’re a ‘Catholic for Choice,’ ex-Catholic, of other or no faith, recognize that six extremist Catholics set out to overturn Roe. Stand at or in a local Catholic Church Sun May 8.” 

Protesters disrupted planned services at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, some engaging in grotesque pantomimes of abortion immediately outside the church grounds. Christopher Plant, whose bio says he is the pastor of St. Bartholomew the Apostle Catholic Church in Katy, Texas, took to Twitter on Monday to report that the church’s tabernacle had been stolen the night before.

Meanwhile, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the headquarters of pro-life group Wisconsin Family Action in Madison, Wis., with the words “If abortions aren’t safe you aren’t either” graffitied outside. A pro-life center in Denton, Texas was also defaced. 

Federal Remedy: The FACE Act

These dangers to the peaceful exercise of religious liberties must be confronted and overcome. Even if the Biden administration refuses to quell threats and intimidation, believers have – and should use – the remedies that the law provides for them.

Of these remedies, one powerful option is, ironically, The Freedom of Access to [Abortion] Clinic Entrances Act (FACE). In an obvious legislative compromise, FACE protects not only abortion facilities, providers, and clients, but also criminalizes actions or attempts intended “by force or threat of force or by physical obstruction” to injure, intimidate or interfere with “any person lawfully exercising or seeking to exercise the First Amendment right of religious freedom at a place of religious worship.” Likewise, FACE criminalizes the actions of anyone who “intentionally damages or destroys the property of a place of religious worship.” 

Enforcement of these criminal provisions is, however, in the hands of the vehemently pro-abortion Biden administration, which can be expected to tailor the execution of the laws to its political ends. Even so, FACE offers other means for vindicating religious liberties.

This is because FACE also authorizes churches and individual worshippers injured by the relevant misconduct to bring private actions on their own behalf. If entitled to relief, they may obtain either (or both) an injunction against the misconduct or “compensatory and punitive damages,” along with an award of reasonable legal fees. These legal awards, especially if they include punitive damages, could be crippling for pro-abortion defendants.  

Finally, FACE authorizes state attorneys general who find “reasonable cause to believe” that a violation “is being, has been, or may be” occurring, to bring civil actions. The Virginia attorney general has already signaled his intention to refer any criminal violations for prosecution. Concerned citizens should demand that their state attorneys general follow suit.  

State Criminal Law Protections

States also commonly have hate crimes statutes that are similar to these federal civil rights laws. Colorado, for example, has at least two statutes that might apply to the vandalization of a Catholic church in that state. One statute makes it a crime knowingly to “desecrate” (which includes defacing) “any place of worship.” It will be interesting to see if the state’s Attorney General Phil Weiser, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, will bring a case under the state’s anti-desecration law on behalf of the Catholic churches in his jurisdiction. 

Privately Enforceable State Tort Laws

Lawsuits against the pro-abortion extremists who attack churches or worshippers can also be brought under state tort laws by the injured parties. Professor John Banzhaf of George Washington University Law School has argued that civil actions, especially if class actions, can bring justice to those who suffered injuries when “peaceful protests” have turned into violence that damaged their lives or property. For instance, journalist Andy Ngo sued those who beat when while he was covering a “peaceful protest” that turned into a riot, alleging the torts of assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress as well as a violation of the state’s anti-racketeering act. 

Legal Self-Defense

Finally, churches and worshippers should remember that they have a legal right of self-defense against threats to life and limb. The choice of forms that self-defense should take – churches might install security cameras, provide cans of pepper spray to their congregations, or even bring in defenders who openly bear arms – is best left to the consciences of pastors and congregants within the confines of applicable law.