How the law can–and does–work (slowly)
As a retired physician—and as a staunch supporter of reproductive rights and reality-based sex education (and an opponent of right wing extremism masquerading as Christianity)—perhaps I paid more attention to the controversy around “The Church at Planned Parenthood” (TCAPP), than most. A homegrown extremist group originally led by “Pastor” Ken Peters, TCAPP harassed patients and caregivers at Planned Parenthood near the junction of Division and Indiana in Spokane for years, starting in 2018. A recent press release is a good summary:
For over two years, anti-abortion extremists had held rallies directly outside of the Spokane Planned Parenthood Health Care Center. Calling themselves “The Church at Planned Parenthood” (TCAPP), these extremists used amplified speakers to loudly denounce Planned Parenthood and interrupt the provision of the health care services they provide. In addition, TCAPP members blocked access to the clinic, intimidated patients, and often carried concealed weapons. These ‘services’ attracted a variety of local and national hate group representatives, including the founder of Patriot Prayer, a hate group associated with the Proud Boys.
TCAPP first appeared in a Spokesman article in April 2019. Click that Spokesman link to access the cast of right wing characters behind TCAPP’s activity. “The Church at Planned Parenthood” is the creation of self appointed “Pastor” Ken Peters (See P.S.) of what was then called the Covenant Church at at 3506 W. Princeton Ave. in Spokane. (The name was changed to the “Patriot Church” after the January 6, 2021, insurrection because “Our country is under attack by demonic principalities and powers…Their evil agenda is cloaked in phrases such as, ‘end racism,’ ‘redistribute wealth to the disadvantaged,’ and ‘open borders.’”, according to Peters.)
The purpose of this post is to delve into the why and wherefore of the expensive and lengthy legal efforts required to limit the ongoing harassment that TCAPP disguised as “worship”. There was much learned by me in the efforts to understand the process—much that I hope to convey that you don’t find detailed in the newspaper.
In this country we pride ourselves in our First Amendment right to protest without being shot, killed, or thrown into prison for long periods. However, we also have laws that should limit the disruption caused by people exercising their right to free speech. In Washington State there is a whole chapter of the Criminal Code devoted to “Interference with health care facilities or providers” (Chapter 9A.50 RCW). Among the actions prohibited by the statute is “Making noise that unreasonably disturbs the peace within the facility”. It is this clause, a clause not necessarily present in the legal code of other states, upon which curbing TCAPP’s harassment of patients and caregivers ultimately depends.
The penalty of the interference defined in RCW 9A.50.020 follows two possible paths—criminal and civil.
The criminal penalties that can be applied are detailed in RCW 9A.50.030. The available criminal penalties are all misdemeanors (including “gross” misdemeanors), that is, if convicted, the absolute maximum sentence would be a year in jail (not a state prison—that’s where felons go) and $1000 fine. (A misdemeanor remains on your record, but, in Washington State, unlike a felony, it does not interrupt your right to vote.)
The path to enforcing criminal penalties, however, requires that the police to recognize that a crime is in progress and a Prosecutor’s Office willing to charge the crime. We in Spokane appear to have neither. As Shawn Vestal clearly demonstrated in his July 29, 2022 entitled “The laws are the laws, but they don’t enforce themselves”:
They [the TCAPP protesters] amplified their music, speeches and prayers obnoxiously with speakers that made their protests audible inside the examination rooms [of Planned Parenthood on Indiana Ave.] and out in the neighborhood.
I stood inside one of those rooms at a protest and could clearly hear the amplified words being spoken outside. I was later told by an officer that you could not hear the protests inside.
The ones I had just heard, I mean.
This is classical example of gaslighting demonstrated by members of the Spokane Police department.
From the legal declaration in the case records from a Medical Assistant employed at Planned Parenthood Spokane:
It is frustrating to staff to hear the police say that they will monitor the protesters, only for the protests to grow larger and more disruptive thereafter. The police set up barricades to keep the protesters safe but seem less concerned with our needs.
In February 2020, the Spokane City Council essentially copied the Washington State law into a municipal ordinance (Section 10.60.070 under the local criminal code) in the hope engaging police cooperation in enforcement. (This also could have opened the way to using the City’s Municipal Court system instead of the Spokane County Superior Courts.)
It didn’t work.
City of Spokane’s Police Chief Meidl offered excuses to the Spokesman:
“Passing a local ordinance already codified in (state law) does not change the necessity to prioritize calls based on call load, nor does it change the elements needed to prove a violation of law occurred, nor change the resources available to respond to a call,” Meidl said.
The article goes on:
Even after adopting the city law to curtail the noise of protests at Planned Parenthood [in February; this article was from November], [City Councilwoman Lori] Kinnear feels it’s not being enforced. The city [that means Mayor Woodward’s executive branch in this context—not the City Council] and police officials have disagreed, remaining adamant that code enforcement officers have been at the site and monitoring noise levels.
The bottom line is that to use the criminal legal protection offered both by state law and the City of Spokane municipal code requires the participation of the local police force—and neither the Mayor’s Office or the City of Spokane Police Department was participating.
Before laying out the civil lawsuit pathway it is worth to point out that criminallaw is meant to be enforced by the government at government (taxpayer) expense. The aggrieved complainant may appear in court, but, in a criminalcase, the complainant’s participation in the proceedings is not necessarily required. The case goes forward with the government (which would have been represented here by the County Prosecutor’s Office) as the Plaintiff, the group arguing for the guilt of the accused. Generally there is no cost to the aggrieved party, in this case the Planned Parenthood Clinic.
In contrast, it takes money and considerable effort to mount a civil case, more money and effort than a lot of plaintiffs are able to muster.
Even so, fortunately the civil suit path to justice for interference with a health care facility is available in Washington State and usable when representatives of government fail to enforce the law. The groundwork for a civil suit is spelled out in RCW 9A.50.040 along with a basis for injunctive relief (i.e. a formal judicial warning). The next Section, RCW 9A.50.050, specifies damages of “up to five thousand dollars for each day that the actions [interference] occurred.”
On June 23, 2020, after two years of harassment and law enforcement gaslighting, Planned Parenthood of Greater Spokane and North Idaho filed a complaint with Spokane County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald for “Injunctive Relief and Damages” against Covenant Church and Covenant Christian School; Ken Peters; Representative Matt Shea; Clay Roy; Gabriel Blomgren; and Seth Haberman.
According to the Spokesman on September 21, 2020:
Spokane Superior Court Judge Raymond Clary issued a preliminary injunction [read it at that link—it’s plenty interesting—use the Next and Prev buttons to turn the pages] that requires The Church at Planned Parenthood, or TCAPP, to gather across the street from the Indiana Avenue clinic, or anywhere at least 35 feet from the building, instead of directly adjacent to the property.
The order also requires TCAPP – which has held regular anti-abortion events outside the clinic since 2018 that sometimes draw hundreds of attendees – start its gatherings at least one hour after Planned Parenthood stops accepting new patients at 6 p.m.
A whole year later, on September 22, 2021, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Timothy B. Fennessy granted a permanent injunction against TCAPP, et al “from demonstrating immediately outside the facility, and while the facility is open to patients.” “Pastor” Peters debated appealing the ruling. It wasn’t covered in the media, but I am told that Peters and his lawyers spent money and effort on an appeal of the permanent injunction to the Washington State Court of Appeals—and almost immediately lost.
The damages part of the civil suit took much longer and was much less publicized. Finally, KXLY reported on December 16, 2022, that “‘The Church at Planned Parenthood’ ordered to pay $110k in civil damages” two days previously. The judgement against TCAPP was the result of twenty-two documented instances of “making noise that unreasonably disturbs the peace within the facility.” On February 3, 2023, the Spokesman, in its digital-only Saturday version, reported “Anti-abortion group must pay $850,000 of Planned Parenthood’s legal fees after being fined $110k over noise violations”. The $850,000 amount of the award was startling, but RCW 9A.50.040 specifies that “The prevailing party is entitled to recover costs and attorneys’ fees.”
From the first filing of the complaint against TCAPP in June 2020 to the final resolution on February 1, 2023, this case produced one hundred and ten legal documents, one hearing before Spokane County Superior Court Judge Raymond Clary and six hearings before Superior Court Judge Timothy Fennessy (click here and enter case number 20-2-01703-32). Despite all this legal maneuvering, the case was settled by Judge Fennessy without a jury trial (which would have been even more expensive). There was no jury trial because the claim for damages was based on law and facts that were beyond dispute (and TCAPP had already lost the appeal of the permanent injunction—an ominous sign, no doubt).
One might vindictively wish that losing a million dollar lawsuit would bankrupt TCAPP, Peters, Covenant (now “Patriot”) Church, and company—but the fact is that they have the backing of monied donors, some insurance coverage, and a well funded right wing legal group, the “Pacifica Justice Institute” that may have worked pro bono. PJI is characterized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
After two and a half years of Planned Parenthood’s of efforts around the civil suit, I asked Paul Dillon, speaking for Planned Parenthood, if all the time and effort was worth it:
I think it is important to not just focus on the monetary perspective but also the permanent injunction which forced TCAPP away from the health center and after hours. That again has been a major relief for staff and patients. In addition, the Judge affirming what we had repeatedly said – that these protests did in fact interfere with health center operations.
It was worth it. All the late nights, the documentation. We were building a case and every detail mattered. Here’s some of the video we submitted to the court. Fortunately for us? They post everything on social media. [click to see some of it]
The Judge’s rulings affirmed what we had been saying since these protests started in 2018: They seek to harass and intimidate patients and staff. They were clearly in violation of RCW 9A.50.020 – interference with a health care facility – despite what Chief Meidl and city legal repeatedly claimed for years.
My hope is that this victory will send a message. We were the first affiliate in the country to successfully sue TCAPP and collect damages so hopefully this opens the door to others taking action, especially as we look further this legislative session on ways to safeguard abortion access that include strengthening staff and patient protections.
Of course, the frustrating thing is that it took all this effort—and two years—to achieve a result that could have been solved if the Mayor’s Office and the City Police had enforced existing law against sometimes-armed right wing extremists. Let us remember this struggle when we submit our ballots this fall in municipal elections.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. Background on TCAPP and the “Pastors”:
The tactics of groups like “Moms For Liberty”, the folks harassing local school boards over bogus issues like “CRT”, were developed elsewhere and transplanted to our local scene. In contrast, it appears that The Church at Planned Parenthood originated right here in Spokane in one extreme corner of our politico-religious environment. The idea for TCAPP is widely credited to the political activist and nondenominational, self-appointed, Spokane-based “Pastor” Ken Peters, a man with multiple points of intersection with “Pastors” Matt Shea and Gabe Blomgren. (A “nondenominational” pastor is free to espouse whatever interpretation of the Bible he or she finds useful in gathering followers. No formal training or oversight is required, only charisma and enough glibness with scripture to pull the broad cloak of Christianity over what you preach. If this also sounds to you like the recipe for forming a cult, it should.)
“Pastor” Peters got his start gathering followers to the “Covenant Church” that he began to form in a Spokane Valley Super 8 Motel in 1998. His charisma and his backing were sufficient to acquire a church building at 3506 W. Princeton Ave., Spokane, and to establish the Covenant Christian School and another Covenant Church outpost in Moses Lake. In June of 2020, Peters left the leadership of the Spokane Covenant Church to “Pastor” Matt Shea, the former Washington State Representative from Spokane valley disgraced over his tract “The Biblical Basis for War”. A House-commission report accused him of engaging in domestic terrorism in part due to his involvement with the Ammon Bundy led terrorist armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Peters left Spokane in order to found another church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Things did not go well with Shea, who decamped to his own church and school, On Fire Ministries & Kingdom Christian Academy, at 115E Pacific downtown in May of 2021.
When Peters returned he changed the name of the Covenant Church to the “Patriot” Church. Perhaps that had something to do with his presence in Washington, D.C. Peters said he “traveled to the Jan. 6 rallies on Lindell’s private plane and stayed at a Trump hotel on Lindell’s dime.” (Peters claims he did not enter the Capitol.)
TCAPP, Peters brainchild has now metastasized to many other cities—at least that is the impression given by multiple flashy websites that turn up on a google search—usually with an image our one of the largest gatherings TCAPP put together next to to the Spokane Planned Parenthood. (Perhaps it is worth noting, though, that TCAPP has yet to get its own wikipedia article, unlike the astroturf organization “Mom’s for Liberty”.)