“This is wrong, and you know it,” said David Benham as a police officer handcuffed him.
David and pro-life advocates from his group, Cities4Life, were standing outside an abortion facility in Charlotte, North Carolina on the morning of Saturday, April 4, as they had many times before. Every week, these pro-life advocates stand on the sidewalk in front of abortion facilities and speak to willing men and women who enter and exit.
Many times, these advocates are the last people to talk to women before they make the life-altering (and life-ending) choice of abortion.
On this particular day, following the social distancing regulations issued by the state and the county, the advocates decided to not only comply with, but go “above and beyond” to ensure they followed safety guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They pared down the number of volunteers, measured six feet between counselors, and brought hand sanitizer.
But that didn’t matter to police officers. It also didn’t matter that Cities4Life is considered an “essential business” and was allowed to continue operating during the “stay-at-home” order. Police officers still arrested David Benham, and they arrested or cited five other advocates who were with him.
This was a clear violation of the First Amendment. But if you think that the violation of sidewalk counselors’ rights is unique to the COVID-19 crisis, there is a case already waiting at the U.S. Supreme Court that says otherwise.
On March 26, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Bruni v. Pittsburgh on behalf of pro-life sidewalk counselors.
This case is about a law in Pittsburgh that bans pro-life advocates from speaking—or even praying—within 15 feet of the entrance of a health facility. City officials painted a bright line to trigger the law near the door of only two such facilities in the entire metropolitan area: Pittsburgh’s two abortion clinics. Not only does this so-called “buffer zone” law violate the constitutional rights of counselors, it goes against a Supreme Court decision from six years ago invalidating a similar law.
Back in 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that barred pro-life advocates from speaking within 35 feet of the entrances, exits, and driveways of abortion facilities.
When this law was passed in 2008, sidewalk counselor Eleanor McCullen knew it would adversely affect her mission. Eleanor stood outside of a Planned Parenthood in downtown Boston 10 hours a week. Her warm presence became a fixture outside of the cold, glass facility. She kindly approached women entering the building and engaged them in conversation.
But after the law was passed, Eleanor and other counselors were forced to use a loud voice to get the attention of the men and women entering Planned Parenthood. This was obviously inconsistent with their soft-spoken approach—it even gave the impression to some that they were there to condemn those entering the facility, when they were really there to help them.
Thankfully, the Supreme Court struck down this law in McCullen v. Coakley in a unanimous decision.
But Pittsburgh’s law, passed in 2005, is threatening the mission of other pro-life sidewalk counselors. Worse, when the law went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the court reinterpreted it, then upheld the law despite the McCullen decision. As a result, Pittsburgh pro-life advocates are still in danger of prosecution every time they pray or engage in sidewalk counseling in front of an abortion clinic.
Hopefully, the Supreme Court will hear Bruni v. Pittsburgh and protect pro-life sidewalk counselors once and for all.
Every American has a constitutionally protected right to free speech. It does not matter if you believe something unpopular or different than those in power. Pro-life sidewalk counselors have the same First Amendment rights as anyone else—and those rights deserve to be protected.
But there is something else at stake here.
Often counselors who stand outside of abortion facilities are the last voice a woman hears before her abortion appointment. Many times, they are the only voice women hear that offers them real help and real choices. And unfortunately, this may be the only opportunity women have to learn the truth about abortion.
Because of this, sidewalk counselors are uniquely positioned to help women and save the lives of their unborn children.
David Benham’s story proves this. While Charlotte police officers were making arrests, something more important was happening just a few feet away. A woman named Reena was getting a free sonogram in a mobile ultrasound unit. And Reena chose life for her baby.
If Cities4Life volunteers hadn’t shown up that morning, Reena may have never heard the empowering pro-life message. How many women are there in other cities like Pittsburgh who deserve to hear such a message but may never get the chance?