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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Planned Parenthood sues leaders of anti-abortion ‘church’ services outside Spokane clinic

Some 200 people rally outside Spokane’s Planned Parenthood clinic as part of an anti-abortion religious service called “The Church at Planned Parenthood” on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. The health care provider is suing leaders of the group.  (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)
By Chad Sokol and Adam Shanks The Spokesman-Review

Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho is suing a group of anti-abortion protesters who lead frequent religious services outside the health care provider’s Spokane clinic, alleging the noisy demonstrations have interfered with treatment and intimidated patients and staff.

Attorneys filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Spokane County Superior Court against the group calling itself “The Church at Planned Parenthood,” or TCAPP. The named defendants include state Rep. Matt Shea; Covenant Church and Covenant Christian School; pastors Ken Peters, Gabe Blomgren and Seth Haberman; and Clay Roy, who is described as the director of TCAPP.

“These are not protesters – they are bullies who are trying to take away care from young women, men, the LGBTQ community and Black, Indigenous, people of color in Spokane,” Karl Eastlund, chief executive of the regional Planned Parenthood organization, said in a statement.

“Our health center is the principal provider of reproductive health care in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, and we see 10,000 patients annually who otherwise would not have access to the care that they need,” Eastlund said. “Enough is enough.”

The lawsuit seeks damages and a permanent injunction to stop TCAPP’s gatherings outside the clinic at 123 E. Indiana Ave., which sometimes draw several hundred people.

Since the gatherings began in 2018, Planned Parenthood has implored Spokane police to enforce the city’s noise ordinance as well as a state law banning disruptions of health care facilities. In March, the Spokane City Council voted 6-1 to adopt another city ordinance with the same effect as the state law, but Planned Parenthood alleges police have refused to enforce it.

“Patients who rely on Planned Parenthood for vital medical care have the same right as all Washingtonians to access health care without unreasonable disruption or interference,” Kim Clark, an attorney with Legal Voice, a firm focused on women’s and LGBTQ rights, said in a statement.

“This is more vital than ever in a global health pandemic that is disproportionately harming people of color – people who already face substantial obstacles to accessing health care,” Clark said. “TCAPP and its loud mob of angry protesters, many of whom carry guns, have terrorized patients and staff at Planned Parenthood long enough.”

Tuesday’s hourlong TCAPP demonstration drew about 200 people, plus several counterprotesters who spent most of their time on the other side of Indiana Avenue. As has become routine, police set up a bright orange barricade to corral the TCAPP followers in a green space outside the clinic.

The featured speaker was Joey Gibson, the founder of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, members of which have incited violence at public demonstrations. Gibson and five other men were indicted on felony rioting charges last summer following a brawl outside a Portland bar. One local member of another far-right group, the Proud Boys, stood near Gibson as he spoke.

Peters, who recently announced he’s leaving Spokane to bring TCAPP demonstrations to Planned Parenthood locations across the country, said Tuesday lawyers from the American Center for Law and Justice have agreed to defend TCAPP’s leaders from the lawsuit. The ACLJ is led by attorney Jay Sekulow, who helped lead President Donald Trump’s defense in the impeachment trial.

“We’re here to worship, pray, preach together. That’s all we do. We’re here to fight with spiritual weapons,” Peters told the crowd Tuesday. “They can try to keep us quiet with the sound ordinance, but they can’t stop us. So if we got to sing quiet, we’ll sing quiet. But we’re not going to stop singing. We’re not going to stop praising. We’re not going to stop.”

Replacing Peters at Covenant Church will be Shea, who did not file for re-election to his Spokane Valley House seat this year. The lawsuit notes that an independent investigation commissioned by the House last year found Shea engaged in domestic terrorism during an armed standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016.

On Tuesday, Peters echoed Shea’s view that Christians are persecuted more than any other group.

“The most hated race in America is Christians right now. It really is,” Peters said to applause.

Peters also repeated his assertion that TCAPP demonstrations can’t disrupt the operations of the Planned Parenthood clinic because the gatherings now start around the clinic’s posted closing time.

“They’re not even open,” he said. “We start at 6 o’clock; they close at 6.”

Planned Parenthood says the clinic stops taking in walk-in patients at 6 p.m., but the last patients and employees typically leave around 7 p.m. The nonprofit says the demonstrations cause immense stress to patients and harm the productivity of employees, who park their cars in different locations or use different entrances and exits to avoid being confronted by TCAPP participants.

“Planned Parenthood clinicians report that the noise is obviously upsetting to patients. One medical assistant recalls taking care of a patient who, hearing the megaphone and the music outside, started crying in the middle of her exam,” the lawsuit states. “The staff ultimately had to move this patient, like many others, to another room. Moving a patient requires her to get dressed and undressed again. It also requires the patient to wait until there is another room available where the noise level is lower.”

Planned Parenthood says TCAPP’s mission is clearly to disrupt the operations of the clinic.

“If TCAPP protests were just about worship and not about disrupting the operations of the clinic, TCAPP could relocate to the opposite side of the street in front of the Salvation Army building, where there is more room for a large gathering and all involved would be safer,” the lawsuit states. “The Salvation Army has welcomed TCAPP, allowed TCAPP to use the public right of way along its building as well as its parking lot, and provided financial support to TCAPP.”

In March, when the City Council took up the ordinance banning disruptions at health care facilities, scores of TCAPP members and Planned Parenthood supporters filled the council chambers to debate the matter. The ordinance was approved after a tense meeting under heavy security from Spokane police.

“It does not impact free speech. Protests are still allowed. That’s not the issue. It’s about noise,” Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, the bill’s sponsor, said at the time.

The church’s members said the law unfairly targeted them, and Peters told the City Council it placed a “lightning rod over some of the city’s best people.”

Earlier this year, Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl told The Spokesman-Review the city’s legal department had advised police on what constitutes a violation of the law regarding noise at TCAPP demonstrations. Since September, Meidl said, the police department had assigned a captain to every demonstration to watch for violations and had, at that point, entered the facility on multiple occasions to assess the noise level.

“I have been assured by everyone who is there that they have been following the law,” Meidl told The Spokesman-Review in February.

In May, Capt. Dave Singley told The Spokesman-Review that officers lacked the training necessary to enforce the law because a session planned at Rutgers University had been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Planned Parenthood says the noise level from the TCAPP gatherings far exceeds limits established in the noise ordinance, routinely reaching between 90 and 100 decibels.

“Although there is a strong police presence at TCAPP protests, the police tend to stay on the side of the street with TCAPP and make conversation and smile and laugh with its participants,” the lawsuit states. “In fact, the perception among the staff at Planned Parenthood and TCAPP protesters alike is that the police are there to protect TCAPP.”

On Tuesday evening, police spokeswoman Julie Humphreys said city officials couldn’t immediately respond to the allegations in the lawsuit, but she insisted police have made an effort to enforce the noise restrictions.

“SPD has responded to every complaint about the noise and determined that there was not a violation of the noise ordinance,” she said.