This New York case against sidewalk counselors could have national implications

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Thursday, September 26, 2019, marked an important hearing in an ongoing legal case with implications for sidewalk counselors nationwide. The People vs. Griepp et al  lawsuit was originally filed in June 2017 by then-Attorney General of the state of New York against 10 members of Church@theRock, alleging that during their sidewalk counseling the group threatened and harassed women entering Choices Women’s Medical Center in New York City for abortions. Live Action News spoke over the phone with Attorney Martin Cannon of the Thomas More Society who is representing the pro-lifers, as well as Mrs. Lois Griepp, wife of defendant Rev. Kenneth Griepp, pastor of Church@theRock.

Griepp told Live Action News they live in a “diverse community,” and that members of the Brooklyn, New York, church were shocked to learn in 2012 that “the abortion rate… was over 50%.” Congregants had previously financially supported pregnancy care centers, but when they heard that shocking statistic, they knew that they “needed to do more.”

That same year, Choices Medical Women’s Center abortion facility, which originally opened in 1971 after abortion was legalized in the state in 1970, moved to the nearby borough of Queens. Shortly thereafter, church members started praying and sidewalk counseling outside the center on Fridays and Saturdays, displaying signs of babies in the womb and offering brochures listing resources for women experiencing unplanned pregnancies. On Fridays, the sidewalk counselors were able to speak with patients uninterrupted, Mrs. Griepp said, but on Saturdays there were always “escorts” who quickly ushered patients past the pro-lifers to prevent any interaction.

Image result for lois griepp

Pastor Kenneth and Lois Griepp (Photo via Thomas More Society)

Griepp said that the congregants weren’t there to “protest,” but considered themselves “unborn baby advocates.” She told Live Action News, “We’re there because we love these girls and we want the women to know that they have options.” She shared how earlier this year, a man approached the pro-lifers one cold Saturday morning, carrying two bags from Dunkin Donuts. The pro-lifers assumed the coffee and pastries were for the abortion center escorts, and were surprised when the man gave them to the pro-lifers instead. He told them that two years prior, his wife had been scheduled for an abortion. On the scheduled date, the couple saw the pro-lifers praying and changed their minds. The man showed them a picture of his two-year-old daughter.

While church members rejoiced when babies were saved and mothers were spared from the aftermath of abortion, Mrs. Griepp told Live Action News that the escorts were clearly frustrated by the prayerful presence outside the center. The June 2017 lawsuit, then, was not altogether surprising.

Marilyn Nevarez

A Church@TheRock sidewalk counselor speaks to a young woman outside Choices (Photo via Thomas More Society)

Former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who resigned in June 2018 after allegations that he had both physically and sexually abused multiple women, named Griepp’s husband and nine other congregants in the suit. Schneiderman claimed that the pro-lifers violated the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act by physically preventing patients from entering the center, harassing patients even after repeated requests to stop, and issuing death threats. Schneiderman sought a preliminary injunction to get the sidewalk counselors off of the sidewalk until the case could be decided.

Attorney Martin Cannon of the Thomas More Society told Live Action News that he was taken aback during his initial meeting with the members of Church@theRock, given the vicious actions of which they were accused. He called them “the most wonderful bunch of people” and noted that they included “a pastor, a schoolteacher, a nurse, a forklift operator, and a school administrator,” among others. “These are people who are obviously socially aware, well-placed in society, and who have families and jobs” he said.

READ: New York City becomes first to pay directly for abortions of low-income children

Martin Cannon, Kenneth Griepp

Martin Cannon is representing Pastor Griepp and 9 others (Photo via Thomas More Society)

He noted that the early 2018 District Court proceedings turned into essentially a full trial, rather than a hearing about the preliminary injunction only, which lasted four weeks, and included 17 witnesses and hundreds of documents. Over and over again, Cannon said,  “every allegation they (the plaintiffs) made was contradicted by their own evidence,” including video footage and photographs.

He said that multiple times, Judge Carol Amon asked incredulously, “You said that this shows what, again?” as the videos clearly did not show any wrongdoing by the pro-lifers. Judge Amon’s ruling in June of 2018 amounted to a “smackdown” of New York’s Attorney General, Cannon said. Firstly, the pro-lifers’ rights to free speech were clearly protected. Furthermore, Judge Amon not only rejected the request for a preliminary injunction but also made it clear that she did not intend to try the case again, meaning that there would be no further hearings.

The Attorney General’s office appealed Judge Amon’s decision to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, also known as the Appellate Court. The oral argument hearing was held on Thursday, September 26th. In an appeals court, Cannon told Live Action News, no new evidence is submitted. Instead, the court reviews the evidence from the original case and makes a decision about whether the original judge rendered correct “conclusions of law.” Cannon said that the Attorney General’s office claims Judge Amon erroneously rejected two sources of information that should have been included as evidence. Judge Amon had ruled that “Patient Experience Questionnaires” (PEQs)  furnished by Choices as proof of harassment “had no weight” because there were leading questions, the patient responses were given without context, and only half of the PEQs were provided. Judge Amon also rejected “daily logs” submitted by clinic escorts because of their subjective nature.

Cannon told Live Action News that the Circuit Court’s judgment, which should be released in the next few months given the lengthy documentation of evidence they have to review, will likely be a variation on one of four basic options. One, they could affirm Judge Amon’s ruling, leaving it intact but requesting that a full trial still take place. Two, they could reverse her decision, which would amount to granting the preliminary injunction and leading to a full trial. Three, they could send the case back for a full trial with directions to pay attention to certain evidence, for example the PEQs and/or daily logs. Fourth, they could rule that Judge Amon made a “harmless error” in rejecting the PEQs and daily logs, but that no real harm was caused because the outcome would be unchanged. In this situation, no retrial would be called for. While the court deliberates, Church@theRock members continue to prayerfully and peacefully sidewalk counsel.

Cannon considers People vs. Griepp et al as a bookend case to the original lawsuit that sparked the founding of the Thomas More Society. He said, “Thirty years ago, the National Organization of Women filed a lawsuit against Pro-Life Action League’s Joe Scheidler,” citing a different law but essentially seeking the same goal: to get pro-lifers off of the sidewalks outside of abortion facilities. Attorney Tom Brejcha learned of Scheidler’s story, represented him three separate times over the next few decades, and finally won after taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court. To this day, the Thomas More Society provides pro-bono legal services in particular for free-speech and religious freedom cases.

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