The Spokane City Council adopted new protections for health facilities Monday amid pressure to dampen the loud protests outside of the Planned Parenthood Spokane Health Center .
The ordinance passed 6 to 1, with Councilman Michael Cathcart casting the only no vote.
Council members who supported the measure stressed that it was not intended to restrict protesters’ rights to march, hold signs and pray.
“All we’re asking is that you keep the noise down to a reasonable level,” said Councilwoman Karen Stratton.
Councilwoman Candace Mumm said she believes the Church at Planned Parenthood members’ claims that they have not interrupted Planned Parenthood. And if that’s true, she said, the ordinance would not affect them.
“It’s not about religion, it’s not about freedom of speech, it’s about health care and access to the clinic,” said Councilwoman Kate Burke.
Cathcart said he was opposing the ordinance because it included a “private right to action.” He said noise was subjective and “it’s too hard to interpret who’s causing the noise.”
Still, Cathcart, who identified as pro-life, drew jeers from anti-abortion activists at the meeting, whom he chided for setting back the movement with their actions.
The measure, introduced by Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, fortifies city law to match existing protections from interruption and interference for health care facilities in Washington state law.
Though broader than Planned Parenthood in scope, the bill exposed the sharp social divide on the issue of abortion and drew impassioned testimony from dozens of members of the public ahead of the council’s vote.
Kinnear’s proposal was introduced amid ongoing debate over the Church at Planned Parenthood, a regular gathering of anti-abortion activists who sing and pray outside of the health clinic’s walls. Kinnear insisted the bill’s purpose was to protect the operations of every health care facility in Spokane.
The Church at Planned Parenthood is the most visible of the groups that regularly protest the Indiana Avenue clinic, but representatives for the nonprofit note that various anti-abortion activists demonstrate at different times.
The Church at Planned Parenthood events can draw hundreds of people and, occasionally, counterprotesters.
Planned Parenthood has said the demonstrations can be heard through its walls and interfere with the services it provides to patients, which include abortion but also STD and cancer screening, pregnancy testing and birth control.
Members of the Church of Planned Parenthood believe their activities are protected by freedom of speech. They claimed that their amplified gatherings are not intended to disrupt the health clinic’s operations.
The bill does not extend protections for health care clinics beyond what already exists under state law. Arguing that the state law has not been enforced in Spokane, Kinnear introduced her proposal last month.
Mirroring the language in state law, the city bill prohibits activity that physically interferes with access to a health care facility or interferes “with the safe and effective delivery of health services within the building.”
The bill requires a person violating the law to first be warned by a law enforcement officer to cease the activity causing a disturbance.
If that person continues to disrupt the facility, the first violation is punishable with a fine of at least $500 and a jail term of at least 24 hours. A second offense would be punished by a $700 fine or more and a jail term of seven days, and a third offense would bring a fine of at least $1,000 and a 30-day jail sentence.
And as with state law, the city bill offers people or organizations impacted by such intrusions a “private right of action,” enabling them to sue the offender in court.
The Church of Planned Parenthood and its supporters filled Spokane City Council chambers Monday to oppose the legislation and pledge to continue their demonstrations regardless of whether or not it passed. Others warned that the council was inviting litigation against the city.
Ken Peters, a pastor and leader of the church, called the proposal a “lightning rod over some of the city’s best people.” He said the premise of the ordinance is “false” and that the Church at Planned Parenthood’s intention is not to disrupt Planned Parenthood.
“We are there to disrupt heaven and call on God to end abortion,” Peters said.
Monday’s vote drew nationally prominent anti-abortion activists, including Nashville-based pastor Greg Locke and Joey Gibson, the founder of the Portland, Oregon-based group Patriot Prayer.
Supporters of the bill spoke about the negative consequences caused by the Church at Planned Parenthood events.
One woman described being in an exam room during last week’s Church at Planned Parenthood event and said she could “feel the vibrations in the room” as she answered screening questions.
“Those questions are hard for me anyway, and then to have that ruckus outside made it even more difficult,” she said.
For a patient, it’s like walking through an “ad hoc outdoor music festival,” said Nicolette Ocheltree, who spoke in opposition to the Church at Planned Parenthood.
Paul Dillon, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, said other cities, such as Portland, Maine, have passed similar ordinances that withstood legal challenges.
On Monday, council members amended the ordinance to remove the word “intentionally,” noting the difficulty of proving intention in court. The ordinance was also changed to allow police officers to use meters to enforce noise limits, in addition to just code enforcement officers.
In the week leading up to Monday’s vote, Mayor Nadine Woodward met with representatives from both Planned Parenthood and the Church at Planned Parenthood. Woodward has yet to comment publicly on the legislation and, through a spokesman last week, declined to say whether she supports it or would look to veto it.
Representatives from both organizations told The Spokesman-Review last week they believed their meetings with Woodward were productive.
In a letter to Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl and City Attorney Michael Ormsby last week, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office said it has reviewed video and news reports from the protests and offered its assistance in interpreting state law to city leaders.
The office clarified that, in order to violate state law, the activity only has to be “be unreasonable to an ordinary person seeking health services,” not render health care services impossible. But it also reminded the city to be “viewpoint neutral” in enforcing the law, and honor the constitutional rights of protesters.
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