D.C. charter school sues pro-life advocates for protesting upcoming Planned Parenthood facility
WASHINGTON, D.C., December 10, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) – A public charter school is suing sidewalk counselors and other pro-life advocates for allegedly "yelling" at students, using signs "to obstruct ... students' safe passage" into the school, and "following some students up to the front doors of the school[.]"
However, three area pro-life leaders – including two people named in the lawsuit – told LifeSiteNews they never targeted students. Reverend Patrick Mahoney, who heads the Christian Defense Coalition but was not named in the lawsuit, says he has specifically avoided having his events and efforts in front of the school.
Two Rivers Public Charter School sits across the street from a future Planned Parenthood clinic in the nation's capital. Pro-life advocates have initiated protests, prayer vigils, and other forms of activism in front of the abortion facility, including the use of graphic images and one street protest that blocked construction vehicles for hours.
Two Rivers' lawsuit claims that "defendants' plan is to stop the construction of the adjacent Planned Parenthood facility by engaging in a concerted effort to aggressively confront students, harm their emotional well-being, upset their parents and guardians, and ultimately damage the school's reputation within the community."
Named in the suit are D.C. director of The Anti-Choice Project Lauren Handy; Jonathan Darnel, formerly of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform; American Catholics for Religious Freedom's Virginia Director Larry Cirigano, who is also the D.C. representative at Choose Life license plates; multiple John Does and Jane Does for unidentified pro-life activists; Virginia director of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform Ruby Nicdao; and convicted felon Robert Weiler.
The complaint states that Weiler was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of attempting to bomb an abortion clinic and shoot clinic workers in Greenbelt, Maryland. Released in 2011, he was arrested at the same clinic in 2014.
The Baltimore Sun's 2006 report on Weiler's conviction notes that authorities were tipped off to his 2006 plans by his parents. He had previously been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and bipolar disorder and had been seriously ill for much of his 26 years.
Weiler surrendered to authorities when they called him about his parents' concerns and told them where to find his bomb. Weiler had previously been convicted in 2003 for stealing $22 in gas and leading police on a chase, which made his possession of a firearm found in his car illegal.
The school is seeking court fees, in addition to, though not limited to, orders preventing any of the defendants from entering school property; blocking or obstructing entryways to the school, public spaces, "or parking areas owned or used by Two Rivers Public Charter School"; demonstrations and picketing "within a reasonable distance" of the school; and "whistling, shouting, yelling, use of bullhorns," and other loud attempts to promote the pro-life perspective.
According to the lawsuit, Handy, Weiler, Cirigano, and others held images of aborted babies as parents and children were going into the school. Handy, Darnel, and others are accused of yelling about the clinic to students and parents, including alleged statements saying parents should stand up to the clinic's presence. The complaint says the advocates for life did not have permits for their protests, which took place on public property.
Mahoney and others say parents oppose the clinic's presence; the school acknowledges in its complaint that the construction was approved by city officials before the school knew of the future clinic's presence.
Darnel and Nicdao are accused of chasing down students and parents, with Darnel allegedly jogging after students to hand out information on abortion and accusing a parent who helped students into the school of "supporting baby killing."
Nicdao allegedly entered an alley on school property and approached cars that were dropping off students, telling students to warn parents about "this bloodbath that's coming across the street."
Darnel also wrote a letter to the school, according to the complaint, in which he strongly suggested that school officials stand against Planned Parenthood. Declaring that "I am not threatening you," Darnel allegedly wrote that "if you are failing to challenge Planned Parenthood, I feel a moral obligation to alert the community (including the parents of your students) myself."
"I'm sure you don't want to see me, my anti-abortion friends and our graphic images any more than we want to be in your neighborhood," says the letter, which cites other negative characteristics of having an abortion clinic in the area, such as domestic violence, ambulances, and police.
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Darnel did not respond to a request for comment. However, Handy told LifeSiteNews that "Two Rivers has built their case on exaggerations, half-truths, and outright lies. They are using the same tactics their new neighbors, Planned Parenthood, has been using against pro-lifers since Roe v. Wade, but that's to be expected when people's wallets are involved."
Declaring herself to be "an activist committed to peaceful, prayerful, and public witness" who is "against all abortion-related violence, especially violence in the womb," Handy called it "a tragedy to see our First Amendment rights being suppressed in our nation's capital."
"To be a voice for the voiceless has never been popular, but the First Amendment protects unpopular speech. To bypass that and restrict our speech based on the listeners' reaction is a shameful departure from bedrock principles."
Cirigano likewise said the claims that he acted illegally are false. "We complied with the police officer and stood off the sidewalk. I did not yell or engage with students. I did hold a picture of an abortion victim."
In his comments to LifeSiteNews, Cirigano compared Planned Parenthood to the Taliban. According to the Virginia resident, the Taliban "behead[s] people and then hide[s] behind a school. Planned Parenthood does not want people to see what they do. Abortion will not stop until people see what abortion looks like, baby parts and all."
Cirigano said that he "never saw or met the other fellow, Robert. He was not there when I was there." Mahoney, who heads much of the pro-life advocacy and protest work that takes place in front of the clinic, told LifeSiteNews that he wouldn't know Weiler "if I fell over him."
Handy acknowledged that Weiler was part of the day's protest but said that she "did not know his background." She also described his actions on site as "totally chill" and in keeping with the peaceful nature of the protest.
Mahoney predicted that the lawsuit would turn into an effort to close off the sidewalks from pro-life advocates, though he also predicted victory in court. He also said rare acts of violence, like the one planned by Weiler nine years ago, should not undercut the "peaceful" message of pro-life advocates.
Despite the lawsuit, Mahoney said his group is working with parents and the school. He told LifeSiteNews that "even many parents are furious that Planned Parenthood is there" and said that "all of this does not rest at the feet of peaceful demonstrators who are articulating their First Amendment views. It lies at the feet of Planned Parenthood and [city officials] for not respecting the school, the neighborhood, and the students who attend that school."
"Our goal is to build a relationship with the neighborhood and the school, and the best way to do that is not confronting their children, in my mind," said Mahoney, who said he never saw Handy engage in the behavior alleged by the school. He also said, "If people are concerned about their neighborhood, they never should have allowed an abortion clinic to go next to a school."
Comparing the clinic to "a bar, a strip club, a KKK meeting house," Mahoney said that "blaming peaceful demonstrators – let's exclude the person who was involved with violence – is like people blaming the civil rights workers for disrupting the community, when the real problem was racism and segregation."
The possibility of a buffer zone would create a difficult constitutional situation for both the school and pro-life advocates. The U.S. Supreme Court knocked down a buffer zone last year in Massachusetts but upheld an eight-foot zone in Colorado.
Those zones were based around abortion clinics, however, not around schools.
Attorneys for the school did not return multiple request for comment as to whether they had proof of their allegations of illegal activity. The complaint includes photos of Handy, Cirigano, and others standing on a public sidewalk, which Handy told LifeSiteNews does not require a permit to do – "classic free speech," according to the activist.
The complaint does not say whether the school has video or audio proof of what it claims Nicdao, Darnel, Handy, and others allegedly said or yelled to students and parents.
Sasha Bruce, senior vice president for campaigns and strategy at NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement that "[w]e stand with Mayor Bowser, Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington (PPMW) and Two Rivers Public Charter School in condemning the despicable tactics of anti-choice protestors who seek to stop the construction of a new Planned Parenthood building in Washington, DC."
Accusing "protestors" of having "stooped to a new low in harassing children," Bruce's statement said that "we hope that the courts will soon protect the children at Two Rivers Public Charter School from the menacing actions of anti-choice zealots."
According to The Washington Post, District mayor Muriel Bowser said in a statement that she is working with school and police officials to make certain the city is "doing everything possible to protect students, their families and the community."
"Students should be able to get to school without being harassed, and without any threat to their safety and security," Bowser said.