Peter Breen, 35, is executive director and legal counsel of the Chicago-based Thomas More Society (ThomasMoreSociety.org). The society is a national public-interest law firm which, according to Breen, “is seeking to restore the respect for life in the law and defend the sanctity of marriage and religious liberty.”
The organization is funded by private donations and has two attorneys, a small support staff and volunteers. Although not officially a Catholic organization, it has a strong Catholic character.
Breen grew up in his native Nashville and Chicago, attending both Catholic and public schools. He earned an electrical engineering degree at Vanderbilt University and a law degree from the University of Notre Dame. He has been active in Republican Party politics and discerned a vocation to the priesthood in seminary for nearly two years.
In 2003, he met his future wife, Margie Manczko, who is the director of the Respect Life Office for the Archdiocese of Chicago. She told him she wouldn’t date him if he didn’t get involved in pro-life activities. The pair married and, at the request of a priest friend, founded a pregnancy-help center serving the western suburbs of Chicago.
In 2007, Breen assisted in a legal effort to battle the establishment of a Planned Parenthood abortion facility in Aurora, Ill. Impressed with his work, the founder and president of the Thomas More Society, Tom Brejcha, offered him a job.
You recently filed a petition on behalf of Catholic Charities of Illinois to get a judge to rule on whether their foster care and adoption agencies could continue turning away unmarried parents, including homosexual couples, despite receiving funding from the state. How did this situation arise, and what do you hope will happen?
Catholic Charities of Illinois has for decades worked only with married couples and singles who are not cohabiting to place children in need of adoption. It is a reflection of their religious beliefs. Recently, the Illinois Legislature passed the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act [which went into effect June 1]. Before the law took effect, the Illinois attorney general sent a letter to Catholic Charities accusing them of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and marital status. Catholic Charities decided to take proactive legal action to get declaration from the court that their adoption policy is in full accord with Illinois law.
Our office advised Catholic Charities to get a lawsuit on file so that we could begin negotiations with the attorney general’s office. We are scheduled to meet with the attorney general’s office shortly. If they agree to our interpretation of the law, we can avoid further litigation, which would otherwise be needed to protect children and families under the care of Catholic Charities. We’re hoping for a conciliatory resolution.
What are you doing to defend traditional marriage?
We’re involved in cases across the country, such as the Proposition 8 case in California [the 2008 proposition, passed by voters, defines marriage as between one man and one woman]. We’re also involved with some cases in the Northeast. We specialize in defense of marriage and can bring in some significant legal talent to assist us.
What is a “bubble zone,” and why is it important to people in the pro-life movement?
In Chicago, the “bubble zone” ordinance passed in 2009 says that there is a 50-foot bubble zone around the door of any medical facility in the city and that no one could approach within eight feet of anyone trying to enter the clinic. Violators face a $50 fine.
While the language of the ordinance tried to make it sound like it was protecting health facilities, it was clearly aimed at the protected First Amendment exercise of sidewalk counseling that pro-lifers perform outside of abortion clinics.
We assisted two men arrested under the Chicago bubble-zone ordinance, Joe Holland and David Avignone. Joe had been standing peacefully praying on a sidewalk and was arrested on the word of a Planned Parenthood escort. He was booked, jailed and released. David was passing out literature, but was standing still while doing so. He, too, was arrested, booked, jailed and released.
The charges were dropped against both almost immediately. Joe Holland’s arrest received a lot of media attention, both on the Fox Chicago Sunday morning show and on The Laura Ingraham Show. These were good victories for us and helped us get our message out.
What have you done to help pro-life activist Lila Rose, the young woman who has gone undercover to Planned Parenthood facilities in an effort to show what they’re like behind closed doors?
After her most recent exposé, Planned Parenthood officials insinuated that she and her team had done something wrong. We checked the law and were able to reassure her that she did nothing wrong and that she could release her videos.
We’ve also offered her advice about the laws of particular states and jurisdictions, so that when she visits these places, she can stay within the bounds of the law.
And we also helped her with issues of censorship on YouTube. Planned Parenthood had made privacy complaints to YouTube about her posted videos, which show their workers engaged in illegal activities. We responded strongly to YouTube and pointed out that these were videos already publicized in the national media, and, therefore, Planned Parenthood does not have any expectation of privacy on YouTube. So far, we’ve been able to fight off challenges to her posting her videos.
You’ve also offered support to the Indiana Legislature’s efforts to end its state funding of Planned Parenthood.
We worked with legislators in Indiana to bring forth a scholarly, well-reasoned argument in support of these efforts. We filed an amicus curiae brief laying out in detail why Indiana’s law is valid and constitutional.
You also scored a victory in Wisconsin recently for 40 Days for Life, a nationwide organization which prays for the end of abortion.
Yes. In Wausau, Wis., a public library has public-meeting rooms which can be used for showing films to the public. 40 Days for Life, as part of their public outreach, reserved a room for the showing of the pro-life film Blood Money. Despite the provocative title, it is not a graphic film.
When the 40 Days for Life group began to promote the film, the library director shut them down. We negotiated with the library officials on behalf of 40 Days for Life, but they refused to reverse their decision. We filed suit against the county and the library, and, in the 11th hour, the other side capitulated. The movie was shown. It was a great victory.
What did you do to help the so-called “Notre Dame 88,” the 88 pro-life demonstrators who were arrested for trespassing when the University of Notre Dame honored President Obama in 2009?
A South Bend attorney, Tom Dixon, stepped out in faith and agreed to represent all 88 defend- ants. We realized he needed a lot of help, so we worked with him. We became co-counsels and assisted with research and fundraising.
The case continued for two years, during which time we were uncovering evidence and doing discovery. Finally, we were able to negotiate a settlement with the university that allowed all the charges to be dropped. All of us attorneys working on the case were pleased, as we each had one or more degrees from Notre Dame. We believe that Notre Dame ought to affirm its pro-life commitment, so that the wounds between the university and pro-life movement can be healed.
The society is also an annual sponsor of a cross and image of Christ placed in Daley Plaza, Chicago’s central public square, each Easter.
We work with an interdenominational group to secure the needed permits. The cross, draped with a purple cloth, goes up on Good Friday; on Easter Sunday, it is changed to a white cloth. At sunrise on Easter Sunday, we hold an interdenominational service. It’s been a great witness, a display of religious belief in the public square.
What help does the Thomas More Society need?
We need prayers and donations to keep our mission up and running. We’ve been blessed with the assistance of many volunteer attorneys who help us, but we must still pay the costs for our small staff. Any contributions will go a long way. For, despite our small size, we’ve had a great impact.
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.