Crowds as large as 700 people have gathered monthly outside a Spokane Planned Parenthood clinic over the past four years to pray, sing and “take church to the gates of Hell.”
Pastor Ken Peters said that was his vision when he founded an anti-abortion group called The Church at Planned Parenthood, which has spread to roughly a dozen locations across Washington and the U.S.
The Spokane crowds shrunk to about 100 people after Planned Parenthood successfully argued in court that the boisterous protests were violating a state law forbidding interference with health care facilities.
But Peters is far from cutting back the group’s operations in Spokane or Washington. As abortion bans go into effect in many states following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the pastor is phasing out protests in those areas and planning to redouble his efforts in states like Washington where abortion remains legal.
“We’re going to be targeting Washington and Oregon, especially,” Peters said, since “the Northwest is going to be an abortion hot spot.”
Washington is expected to see as much as a 385% increase in abortion patients, many coming from Idaho, where an abortion ban is due to go into effect in late August unless blocked by lawsuits from Planned Parenthood and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Peters’ plan illustrates how Washington will not escape the country’s raging controversy over abortion, despite a 1991 voter-approved state law ensuring access to the procedure. As abortion rights supporters seek even more protections – with Gov. Jay Inslee calling for a constitutional amendment shoring up state law and the Seattle City Council late last month declaring the city an abortion “sanctuary” – some on the other side are gearing up for a battle.
Peters explicitly uses that pugnacious turn of phrase – and has drawn support from people many consider extremists, like Matt Shea, a former Washington lawmaker accused of domestic terrorism by a state House-commissioned investigation.
Peters’ language and following have caused alarm among abortion-rights supporters.
“Their rhetoric is just laced with Biblical references that are violent,” said Kim Clark, a senior attorney at Legal Voice, a Seattle-based advocacy nonprofit. Many Church at Planned Parenthood protesters carry guns, she added.
“My friends are all conservatives, and conservatives tend to have concealed carry permits,” Peters said.
The 50-year-old pastor said he doesn’t personally bring a gun but rather his “sword” – the Bible.
“We fight spiritually, not physically,” he said.
Peters moved from Spokane to Knoxville, Tennessee, about two years ago, saying he was chased there by Inslee’s COVID-19 restrictions on church gatherings.
He still flies back to Spokane regularly for Church at Planned Parenthood gatherings. But he has turned the Spokane leadership over to pastor Danny Green, who brings members of his Family of Faith Community Church to protests and said he and his wife are haunted by an abortion she had when they were a high school couple.
Meanwhile, Peters left his brick-and-mortar Spokane church in the hands of Shea, who decided not to seek re-election to his House seat after the legislative investigation concluded he helped plan a 2016 armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge.
Shea and his followers also participated in Church at Planned Parenthood events but stopped going after he and Peters had a falling-out, according to Peters.
The rift also prompted Shea to stop pastoring Peters’ former congregation, Peters said. Shea did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Meanwhile in Knoxville, Peters bought a building that looks like a barn and covered it with the centuries-old design of a 20-star American flag, one of the stars representing Tennessee statehood for the first time. He called his new pastoral home Patriot Church, which has expanded to a network claiming churches in Moses Lake and Spokane.
“Our country is under attack by demonic principalities and powers,” reads the Patriot Network website. “They are destroying the very cultural and religious fabric that makes the USA so special. Their evil agenda is cloaked in phrases such as, ‘end racism,’ ‘redistribute wealth to the disadvantaged,’ and ‘open borders.’ ”
Peters has gotten national press attention for this fire-breathing brand of Christianity as well as his participation in the movement falsely contending the presidency was stolen from Donald Trump in 2020. He spoke at a rally the night before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection but says he didn’t storm the U.S. Capitol.
His rallying call against abortion launched him as a media figure and remains central to his activism: The Patriot Network website calls abortion “an abomination to God” and the 1973 Roe decision “the most heinous demonic victory.”
In the Northwest, Peters said, The Church at Planned Parenthood now holds monthly protests in Everett, Moses Lake and Salem, Oregon, in addition to Spokane. Everett’s protests are the largest, aside from Spokane’s, with about 100 people turning out for Saturday morning gatherings near a clinic there, according to Peters.
He said the group is also talking about holding events in Yakima, where it had a presence until a local leader moved; Pullman, where the Planned Parenthood clinic is drawing a large number of abortion patients from nearby Idaho; and Wenatchee.
It isn’t clear just how contentious these services might become. The Everett protests haven’t caused much of a ruckus or interfered with Planned Parenthood’s clinic there, according to police and the Seattle-based Planned Parenthood affiliate that operates the clinic, which is closed on Saturdays.
But Spokane, which has had a very different story, offers a glimmer of what could happen if protests escalate.
Screaming louder and longer
Peters describes Church at Planned Parenthood events as “church services with grandmas and grandpas and little kids.”
Mark Miloscia, onetime Republican lawmaker and former head of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, who said he spoke at one Spokane event and attended another, echoed that the gatherings were “family friendly.”
Spokane City Council Member Jonathan Bingle said a protest he attended several years ago “was not overly loud or rambunctious.”
But the Spokane Planned Parenthood clinic and two Spokane County Superior Court judges have said otherwise about the gatherings – held on Tuesdays and initially at times when the clinic was serving abortion patients.
Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and Northern Idaho said in a 2020 lawsuit that the group amplifies its “services,” which include rock band performances, with a public-address system and large speakers pointed at the clinic. The Spokane-based Planned Parenthood affiliate said in the lawsuit that organizers “intentionally increase the noise by encouraging the crowd to raise their voices, to sing louder and to scream and shout louder and longer.”
One evening was particularly rough, recalled Paul Dillon, the Planned Parenthood affiliate’s vice president of public affairs. The protest, then on a grassy strip adjacent to a clinic wall, “was exceptionally loud and there was a patient in an exam room, and she was getting undressed. She was talking with the provider. They couldn’t hear each other, and she started crying.”
She put her clothes back on and moved to an exam room farther from the noise, Dillon said.
The protests, which spilled into the street, also caused patients to cancel appointments and staff to leave early, noted Judge Raymond Clary in a 2020 preliminary injunction, made permanent last fall by another judge.
“The right to protest does not include protesting to shut Planned Parenthood down or to harass its patients and health care providers,” Clary wrote.
The injunctions ordered protesters to begin gathering no earlier than 7 p.m., after the clinic’s last patients have left, and stay at least 35 feet away from the building.
Those dictates have taken the edge off the furor, but it’s still ongoing.
While The Church at Planned Parenthood has moved its gatherings across the street, Dillon said protesters begin arriving and making noise while patients are still in the building – some 45 minutes earlier than the injunction permits.
“We get there early to set up,” said Green, the 63-year-old pastor now leading the Spokane protests. “I might strum a couple things to make sure that the speakers are working and the guitars are working and the mics are working.”
Planned Parenthood used to complain to police but doesn’t anymore. Dillon said officers have refused to enforce noise ordinances or state law about interfering with health clinics.
Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl said he sends officers to the Tuesday gatherings, and they’ve asked protesters to turn the volume down. Police have to follow certain requirements, like hearing excessive noise from inside the clinic, to take action against the protesters, he said. Officers went inside the clinic on two occasions and couldn’t hear the protest, he said.
Meidl got an officer’s report from a recent protest confirming protesters started setting up at 6 p.m. The chief said he didn’t know whether that violated the injunction. The city’s legal department later said the injunction was silent on the question.
In any case, it’s not police’s job to enforce civil injunctions, said police spokesperson Julie Humphreys. “It really is a judge’s call.”
That could be another matter for the court, which has yet to determine financial penalties in Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit. The law allows up to $5,000 for every day of violation.
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