STOKING FIRE: Anti-Choicers Bring Harassment to Wyoming and Get Frosty Reception
It’s a tried-and-true tactic: Any time anti-abortion activists are told that they can’t harass people, they scream that their First Amendment rights have been violated. Now, Rev. Mark Holick, OSA head Flip Benham, and longtime co-conspirators Chet Gallagher and Rusty Thomas are at it again, this time in Jackson, Wyoming.
It’s a tried-and-true tactic: Any time anti-abortion activists are told that they can’t disrupt worship services, harass people entering or leaving reproductive healthcare facilities, or stand in front of schools with graphic placards and signs, they scream that their First Amendment rights have been violated. This claim has oft-times proved winning, simultaneously filling the anti’s coffers and boosting their morale.
Take the city of Wichita, Kansas as an example. Yes, the very same city in which Dr. George Tiller worked–and where he was assassinated–awarded Operation Save America’s Rev. Mark Holick $11,700 in 2009 after conceding that his right to free speech had been thwarted when he was arrested at a Gay Pride parade and festival two years earlier. To hear Holick tell it, he was simply trying to “communicate the gospel” to festival-goers, not badger them by predicting that they’d burn in hell for the sin of sodomy.
Now, Holick, OSA head Flip Benham, and longtime co-conspirators Chet Gallagher and Rusty Thomas are at it again, this time in Jackson, Wyoming. The foursome filed a petition in Wyoming Supreme Court in November, alleging that their rights had been infringed upon by a restraining order meant to keep them and their signs at least two blocks away from last May’s 44th annual Elkfest, an antler auction and community party organized by local Boy Scouts to raise money for habitat enrichment and winter feeding programs for the area’s large elk population.
The OSA posse landed in Jackson several days before Elkfest and shortly after declaring that they intend to make the “Equality State”—so named because it was the first in the U.S. to grant women the right to vote—wholly “abortion free.” Their primary target is Dr. Brent Blue of Emerg-A-Care, a physician who has worked in Jackson since 1984.
“We’re a family practice that does terminations,” Blue begins. “Although less than one percent of our patients come in for them, I believe that as a family physician, abortion should be part of our practice, along with flu shots, STD screenings, dispensing birth control, and general examinations.”
Blue says that he got on the anti-abortion group’s radar a little more than a year ago when he ran for County Coroner. “I’m a Democrat,” he continues. “The guy I was up against ran as a Right-to-Life candidate. That’s when the antis began to target me and when they first started claiming that that they were going to make Wyoming abortion-free.”
Things at Emerg-A-Care had been quiet, Blue continues, since a September 1995 firebombing—part of Richard Thomas Anderson’s three-year arson spree at clinics throughout the West—temporarily shuttered the health center. In the 16 years since this incident, Blue says that he has felt fully supported by Jackson’s townspeople and save for several middle-of-the-night phone calls calling him a murderer and an occasional Saturday picketer, no one at Emerg-A-Care has felt much anti-abortion pressure.
“The ethos in Wyoming is that you may have your own ideas, but you don’t tell your neighbors what to do,” said Blue.
The OSA people came here, to Teton County, and six or eight of them picketed in front of the health center. We’re in a shopping mall, which is private property, so they had to stand on the sidewalk, which is public. As far as I know everyone hated their offensive photoshopped signs, their two-by-three foot and taller pictures, and even the anti-choice people in town kept their distance. Hundreds of people signed a petition I created that said, ‘We support your offering choice to women in Jackson Hole.’ Only one church, the Mountainview Independent Baptists, gave OSA any support.
OSA’s website grudgingly acknowledges this, noting the frosty welcome and lamenting the fact that nine of the area’s ten evangelical churches rebuffed their appeals for solidarity. “The Tea Party people have let Jeremy and Felice Augenbaugh, the only faithful family to carry on the work in Jackson, know that the Tea Party does not want to touch social issues like abortion or gay rights,” Flip Benham reports.
Furthermore, the website notes that the people of Jackson “seemed very far from God…Dick Cheney, Harrison Ford, and Sylvester Stallone live there. Rich people move to Jackson to get away from everyone. We never received so many gestures thrown at us or so many cars trying to hit us, but God protected us throughout it all.”
Not surprisingly, OSA’s Benham sees this we-don’t-want-you-here reception as a challenge and refuses to throw in the towel or take his roadshow elsewhere. In fact, he and his followers seem energized by the scorn expressed by local residents. This means that while the group’s legal case winds its way through Wyoming’s court system, Benham and his minions will undoubtedly follow-up on their pledge to return to Jackson to “confront the town with the sin of abortion.”
Rest assured, however, that Dr. Blue and the people of Jackson will be ready—elk antlers in hand—to defend reproductive justice and the choice it allows.