A Planned Parenthood affiliate has won a legal judgment of almost $1 million against a pro-life group that gathered outside of a Spokane abortion clinic.
The group, which calls itself the Church at Planned Parenthood, must pay $110,000 in civil damages to Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho and another $850,000 in legal fees to the abortion provider, The Spokesman-Review newspaper reported Feb. 3.
A Spokane County judge ruled in December that the church repeatedly violated state law by “willfully or recklessly” disrupting the normal functioning of a health care facility, including by making noise that “unreasonably disturbs the peace within the facility.”
Judge Tim Fennessy of Spokane County Superior Court agreed with Planned Parenthood’s evidence that the church held 22 services in violation of state law and fined the church $5,000 for each day of a violation. He agreed that the violations put patients at increased risk of physical and mental health problems, the news site Crosscut reported.
Among the critics of the ruling was Esther Ripplinger, executive director of the pro-life group Human Life of Washington, who addressed the decision in Feb. 7 remarks in an interview with CNA.
“What we’re seeing is an attack on pro-life, period,” said Ripplinger, whose organization is the state affiliate of the National Right to Life Committee. “It’s an attack on life and it’s unfair. And it’s singled out. These are just trumped-up charges and I hope that they fight it to the fullest extent of the law.”
“These are people who engage and mobilize other people who believe that abortion is wrong, and so they have the right to do that, to assemble together on public property,” Ripplinger said. “Absolutely no laws were broken here. This is really just a witch hunt against the organizers and against what they believe, and it’s not fair.”
Pastor Ken Peters, a co-founder of the church, denied allegations of harassment and obstruction to reproductive care. He characterized the events as peaceful and nondisruptive.
“Literally, we were singing, praying, and preaching. That’s what we got sued for. We were doing it after hours when we got sued,” he told Spokane CBS affiliate KREM2 News. He said that insurance will pay for legal fees, and the church’s future events and rallies will go forward.
Paul Dillon, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, said its arguments in the case were “content-neutral.” The clinic saw the protests’ impact on patients and abortion providers. “They did not feel safe,” he said.
Dillon said the group tried to “tiptoe around the law” despite previous court orders.
The Church at Planned Parenthood launched in 2019 as a “church plant” outside the abortion facility. Its website says the church meets only once a month and that the gathering is “not a protest” but “a worship service at the gates of hell.” It characterizes its actions as “non-confrontational spiritual warfare” in the “revival spirit” of Wesley and Whitefield, an apparent reference to John Wesley and George Whitefield, leaders of the Methodist and evangelical Christian movements of the 18th century.
The church says it preaches the Gospel outdoors and “unifies the True Church confronting the Evil of our Day.” Its actions show “repentance for America’s sin.”
The Church at Planned Parenthood has the support of at least nine Washington state churches. It also has controversial links.
It was founded by Covenant Church of Spokane, then pastored by former state Rep. Matt Shea, who now heads On Fire Ministries in Spokane, the newspaper The Spokesman-Review reported.
Shea was suspended from the Washington State House Republican Caucus after a December 2019 report that accused him of “engaging in an act of domestic terrorism” for planning, promoting, and engaging in political violence against the U.S. government from 2014–2016, according to CNN. The incidents included support for the Bundy Ranch standoff against FBI agents in a conflict over grazing rights.
Ripplinger, however, said church attendees are respectful of the law. She told CNA she had attended one Church at Planned Parenthood event several years ago.
“I saw firsthand that this group abides by the law,” she said. “They are on public property and very courteous to anyone. They meet in the evenings after hours, so there’s no disruption to the business whatsoever. I saw that firsthand. They’re extremely polite to pedestrians.”
According to Ripplinger, the gathering she saw had crowd control practices in place to ensure compliance with rules.
The Church at Planned Parenthood initially met on a sidewalk and strip of grass alongside the south wall of the abortion facility. A court order in September 2020 said the church could only gather across the street, but Planned Parenthood said this order was routinely violated, according to KXLY News. In September 2021, a judge barred the church and its members from gathering anywhere within 35 feet of the clinic and from making noise between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Before the legal action and internal splits, the church drew as many as 500 attendees.
Father Darrin Connall, vicar general for the Diocese of Spokane, told CNA he thought the fines seemed “excessive and punitive,” though he was unfamiliar with what laws were broken.
He questioned whether the Church at Planned Parenthood had the best approach.
“The Christian world isn’t united on the best way to protest the taking of unborn human life, so I can’t say if Catholics would be united with their approach or not,” the priest said. “But we certainly would have obeyed the law and if the law needed to be changed, [we’d] work to change the law through the system, rather than rather than breaking it.”
“We in the diocese organize peaceful protests in support of human life regularly,” the vicar general said.
Father Connall, who is also rector of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, said a group of parishioners goes to an abortion facility once a week and prays the rosary outside while obeying the law.
He said the Catholic Church would emphasize prayer, “begging God to bring about a deeper and greater respect for the sanctity of all human life.”
He also noted Catholic Bishop of Spokane Thomas Daly’s launch of the annual Walk for Life Northwest in downtown Spokane, now in its seventh year. According to Connall, this is a time “for people to come together for a public witness to what we believe about life in a very public way.”
Bishop Daly addressed the Walk for Life Northwest in Spokane on Jan. 22. About 2,000 people attended the event, the Spokane diocese newspaper Inland Catholic reported.