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Spokane judge weighs arguments in Planned Parenthood legal battle

A group of anti-abortion activists, pictured earlier this month, holds a  (COLIN MULVANY)
A group of anti-abortion activists, pictured earlier this month, holds a (COLIN MULVANY)

A Spokane judge is expected to decide next week on a request to temporarily halt and relocate demonstrations next to Planned Parenthood .

Planned Parenthood requested the court move the monthly anti-abortion rallies held by The Church at Planned Parenthood outside the gates of its Spokane clinic.

Spokane Superior Court Judge Raymond F. Clary heard the arguments of both sides in a hearing on Friday.

Planned Parenthood’s request would not prohibit The Church at Planned Parenthood from gathering, but would require it to move across the street or anywhere at least 35 feet from the facility’s walls. If approved, the order would also prohibit the protesters from blocking the clinic’s entrance or making noise that disrupts its normal operation.

Violations would carry a penalty of $5,000 per day.

Kim Clark, an attorney at nonprofit Legal Voice representing Planned Parenthood, argued the court’s action is “really the only thing that is going to curb the disruptive actions of this group and allow for the law to be enforced.”

Clark described the protests as a “three-ring circus” directly outside the health care facility.

“This case is about protecting real people who are seeking access to healthcare, it is not about silencing anyone.Planned Parenthood deals with protests all the time, this case is different.”

Tracy Tribbett, the attorney representing The Church at Planned Parenthood leaders named in the suit, contended the case comes down to freedom of speech.

“Plaintiffs do not like the speech that is occurring outside of their walls, they want it completely eradicated,” Tribbett said. “People do not picket away from the place where they have an issue.”

If Clary approves the requested preliminary injunction, it would be impermanent, but signal he believes that Planned Parenthood is likely to succeed in the lawsuit it filed against The Church at Planned Parenthood leaders in June.

Clary said he would try to issue a written decision on the preliminary injunction early next week.

Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho sued the group of anti-abortion protesters who regularly gather outside its Spokane facility in June.

Planned Parenthood provides abortions, but also offers myriad other services including cancer screenings, testings for sexually transmitted infections, and access to birth control.

The healthcare nonprofit accuses the group, which calls itself the Church at Planned Parenthood, of intruding on the treatment of patients at the clinic with loud rallies that are in violation of state law, which prohibits noise that “unreasonably disturbs the peace” within a healthcare facility.

The nonprofit alleges that The Church at Planned Parenthood events, which can draw hundreds of people and often feature prominent guest speakers, intimidate Planned Parenthood patients and staff.

During the hearing on Monday, Planned Parenthood attorneys shared videos of demonstrations outside the clinic, featuring amplified speakers and crowds cheering and clapping.

The timing of the monthly protests is key.

Church leaders do not begin until after the clinic is closed, at 6 p.m., but Planned Parenthood contends that staff and patients remain inside until 7 p.m. and their treatment is impacted.

Clary asked Clark, the attorney for Planned Parenthood, what time limits on the protests the nonprofit would seek to ensure its ability to operate normally. Clark responded that the protests would need to begin after staff and patients exit the building.

Tribbett, the attorney for The Church at Planned Parenthood, questioned whether it was normal for the clinic to have patients and staff in the building past 6 p.m. every day of the month, and dismissed the assertion the protests have substantially impacted physical access to the space.

“There is no sign that anyone has gone beyond the police barricades there,” Tribbett said.

The lawsuit filed in June seeks a permanent injunction against The Church at Planned Parenthood, would would halt its regular gatherings outside the 123 E. Indiana Ave. clinic that began in 2018.

The named defendants in the lawsuit 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 The Church at Planned Parenthood.

Peters was the pastor of Covenant Church before handing the reins to Shea, who opted not to seek another term in office this year after a House-commission report accused him of engaging in domestic terrorism.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office weighed in ahead of Friday’s hearing via an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief. The office noted that while the constitution protects free speech, it does not preclude “reasonable limits on the volume and location of speech.”

If he sides with Planned Parenthood, the attorney general’s office urged the judge to be “content-neutral” – meaning not based on the arguments of the demonstrators – in his decision and narrow in scope, only protecting the normal operations of the health care facility and allowing The Church at Planned Parenthood to continue elsewhere.

This is not the first significant battle fought over The Church at Planned Parenthood this year.

In March, the Spokane City Council adopted a city law that codified and reiterated the existing state protections for health care facilities. The vote drew scores of anti-abortion church members into City Council Chambers.

The law’s sponsor, Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, contended that city police were not enforcing the state laws that protect clinics like Planned Parenthood from excessive noise.

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