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Six pro-life activists convicted of federal civil rights offenses for abortion clinic blockade

Kristen Clarke is sworn in May 25, 2021, as assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice in Washington, with her mother, Pansy Clarke, next to her. Six pro-life activists were convicted Jan. 30, 2024, of federal civil rights offenses brought by the Justice Department for their March 5, 2021, blockade of an abortion clinic in Mount Juliet, Tenn. (OSV News photo/Yuri Gripas, Reuters)

by Kurt Jensen

(OSV News) — Six pro-life activists, including one already jailed and awaiting sentencing for a separate incident in Washington, were convicted Jan. 30 of federal civil rights offenses resulting from their blockade of an abortion clinic in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, on March 5, 2021.

The guilty verdicts were announced after a six-day federal trial at the Fred D. Thompson U.S. Courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee. Sentencing is scheduled for July 2.

They were each convicted of a one felony count of engaging in a “conspiracy against rights” and one felony count of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act, and could be sentenced to 10 and a half years in prison, three years of supervised release and fines of up to $260,000.

The six are Chester Gallagher of Lebanon, Tennessee; Heather Idoni of Linden, Michigan; Calvin Zastrow of Kawkawlin, Michigan; Coleman Boyd of Bolton, Mississippi; Paul Vaughn of Centerville, Tennessee; and Dennis Green of Cumberland, Virginia. According to federal prosecutors, each engaged in a conspiracy to prevent the clinic employees from providing, and women from receiving, abortions, using a strategy known as a “lock and block.”

In that, activists lock doors and gates, and, after entering the clinic, block doorways either with their bodies or furniture.

Idoni is currently jailed in Alexandria, Virginia, She is one of eight awaiting sentencing, expected in May, for a conviction for invading Washington Surgi-Clinic in the District of Columbia in 2020.

In court, federal prosecutors said Idoni, Zastrow, Boyd and Green traveled to Tennessee from other states to participate in the blockade, and Gallagher and Vaughn stalled the Mount Juliet Police Department through negotiations, which Gallagher referred to as a delay tactic.

“These defendants knowingly chose to violate laws they disagreed with,” U.S. Attorney Henry C. Leventis of the Middle District of Tennessee said in a statement. “The jury’s verdic. . . is a victory for the rule of law in this country and a reminder that we cannot pick and choose which laws we follow.”

In a separate statement, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said the six defendants “are being held accountable for unlawfully obstructing access to reproductive health services.”

“The Justice Department will continue to enforce the FACE Act to protect the rights of those who provide and those who seek access to such services,” she added.

Monica Miller, director of the Michigan-based Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, which has conducted clinic blockades under the name of Red Rose Rescue, said in a statement to OSV News that the FACE Act is unjust.

“There is ultimately only one reason the pro-lifers were charged and convicted, namely, that the unborn human beings they defended in their rescue count for nothing!” she said.

“Laws that facilitate the killing of the innocent are unjust laws, and the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, as a law that protects murder, is also unjust,” Miller said. “In the objective world of right and wrong, these pro-lifers are not guilty. They deserve all the support we can give them.”

The FACE Act, enacted in 1994, has proven durable in court. In the first two years after its enactment, the act was upheld by four federal appeals courts and 11 federal district courts. In 1996, the Supreme Court declined, for the third time, to hear a challenge to the law.

A Justice Department web page notes that the law “contains fairly straightforward offense language — requiring an intentional threat of force, use of force, obstruction or damage to property.”

“What is unique about the statute, however, is the motive requirement,” it concludes.

“In addition to showing that an individual engaged in the offense conduct knowingly, the government (or a private plaintiff in some civil FACE cases) must show that an individual engaged in the offense conduct for the purpose of injuring, intimidating or interfering with persons seeking or providing reproductive health services.”

The “lock and block” tactics, used often in the 1980s, saw a revival beginning in 2017. Conspiracy against rights charges, stemming from a civil rights law passed in 1870, allege advance planning of the blockades.

Currently, the best-known convictions from those charges are the activists who conducted a blockade at Washington Surgi-Center in Washington in 2020 under the auspices of a group called Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, which included Catholics, evangelicals and atheists.

They include Joan Andrews Bell of Montague, New Jersey, an early icon of the pro-life movement who participated in Operation Rescue and Lauren Handy of Alexandria, who gained worldwide fame in 2022 for a press conference in which she admitted to storing five unborn fetuses in a refrigerator, believed to have been aborted late term, after recovering a box of 115 from a medical waste disposal truck.

Among other well-known people who have been convicted under the FACE Act, Father Fidelis Moscinski, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal from the Bronx, is finishing up a federal sentence in Louisiana.

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