It began with “wanted”-style fliers listing the home address of the woman who opened Wichita’s first abortion clinic since her mentor, physician George Tiller, was killed, then a Wichita pastor purportedly used a bullhorn during an anti-abortion protest and pointed a sign at the woman’s house that read, “Where’s your church?”
Eight months later, a Sedgwick County judge is poised to decide Tuesday whether the activity justifies a permanent order of protection against stalking or if it’s constitutionally protected speech. It could have far-reaching implications both for the safety of abortion providers and their staff as well as the civil rights of anti-abortion protesters.
The hearing before Sedgwick County Judge James Beasley is the latest in a string of legal actions taken against perceived threats from abortion opponents since Tiller, one of the nation’s few late-term abortion providers, was gunned down in 2009 at his Wichita church by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder.
Julie Burkhart, executive director of Trust Women, won in March a temporary protection against stalking order against Mark Holick, pastor of Spirit One Christian Ministries in Wichita, and is seeking to make it permanent. But Holick’s attorney wants the case dismissed, arguing that if Burkhart succeeds, restraining orders will be sought in every abortion protest against virtually every identifiable protester.
“The ‘chilling effect’ on lawful First Amendment expressive activity would be staggering,” defense attorney Donald McKinney wrote in one filing. “The Court should not set such a dangerous precedent by stretching the anti-stalking statute beyond its plain language and the intent of the legislature.”
Burkhart worked for Tiller for seven years. In April of this year her abortion-rights group opened the South Wind Women’s Center, which provides abortions and other medical services, in the building that once housed his clinic.
Anti-abortion forces galvanized as news surfaced late last year of the abortion clinic’s impending opening. In addition to the wanted-style fliers and the sign, Holick is also accused of “scoping out” the abortion clinic and of encouraging others to bring Burkhart to “eternal life,” according to the petition for the restraining order.
“In the context of the history of violence against abortion providers in Wichita, particularly that Dr. Tiller was murdered in his church; these statements are incitements to violence and are not First Amendment protected communications,” Burkhart’s attorneys have argued in court filings.
Burkhart’s attorney, Lee Thompson, contends Burkhart is now the target of the same type of threats that preceded the murder of Tiller and other abortion providers.
McKinney contends the flier is religious and political speech. While denying his client pointed a sign to Burkhart’s house, he also argues there is nothing illegal about it, saying the purpose of such signs was to urge others to get their churches involved in the abortion debate.
Meanwhile, authorities here have taken a hard line against any perceived abortion-related threats since Tiller’s was killed.
When Roeder – who is serving a life sentence after his 2010 conviction for first-degree murder in Tiller’s death – told another activist in a recorded jailhouse phone call that reopening Tiller’s clinic “is almost like putting a target on your back,” prison officials administratively charged him with trying to intimidate Burkhart and punished him last month with disciplinary segregation and isolation.
In another case in U.S. District Court in Wichita, the Justice Department’s civil rights division sued anti-abortion activist Angel Dillard in 2011 under a federal law aimed at protecting access to reproductive services. The government has accused Dillard of sending a threatening letter to physician Mila Means, who at the time was training to offer abortion services after Tiller’s death. Means eventually decided against the plan.
McKinney, who represents both Holick and Dillard, has asked U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten in sealed filings to also dismiss the case against Dillard. The judge’s decision in those secret filings is pending. Dillard’s trial is scheduled for October.