Just How Far Will the Supreme Court Go to Protect Abortion Clinic Protesters?

The latest in a litany of Bible-thumping cases thrust before the bench is from the Alliance Defending Freedom.

[PHOTO: Woman dressed in orange vest raising hand]
Anti-abortion protesters’ or "sidewalk counselors" as they call themselves, apparently have a God-given right to make a scene and harass patients in front of abortion clinics. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

UPDATE, January 12, 2021, 9:45 a.m.: The Supreme Court declined to hear Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh.

We’re approximately five minutes into this Supreme Court term, and it’s already a clown car of religious zealotry—white Christian zealotry, to be exact. The latest in a litany of Bible-thumping cases thrust before the bench is from our dear friends (worst fucking enemies) at the Alliance Defending Freedom.

If you aren’t familiar with ADF, I envy you. They’re a far-right religious group that pretends to care about things like free speech and civil rights, when all they really care about is trampling human rights like abortion access in the name of “religious freedom.”

Their latest attempt to disguise their modern crusade as something Jesus would’ve supported is Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh. At issue is anti-abortion protesters’ apparently God-given right to make a scene and harass patients in front of abortion clinics. Buffer zone laws, as they are colloquially called, have a storied and somewhat inconsistent history in the Court. In Hill v. Colorado in 2000, the Court upheld a Colorado law banning protesters—or sidewalk counselors, as ADF so charmingly calls them—from coming within 8 feet of patients.

Then in 2014 came McCullen v. Coakley—yet another attempt to paint buffer zones as an infringement on freedom of speech. It would be laughable, except this time the Court bought it. At issue in McCullen was a Massachusetts law famously enacted after John Salvi shot up not one but two Massachusetts abortion clinics, killing two people and injuring five others.

But that wasn’t enough for the Supreme Court (which, I would like to remind you, enjoys the protection of a buffer zone around its building). The Court sided with the anti-choice religious zealots in McCullen, finding that the buffer zone was an unconstitutional restriction of First Amendment rights. Because hey, who cares about dead clinic workers, amirite?

Now the Court will consider hearing a similar case in Bruni. The key difference? The Court is even more hostile to abortion now than it was when they deemed the buffer zone in Massachusetts unconstitutional six years ago. That’s right, folks. The bad news? We have a bench that is aggressively horny for God. The good news? Um … holiday episodes of Bake Off are available?? Keanu Reeves exists?? Honestly I don’t have good news for you about the Court so just take a minute to meditate on Keanu Reeves baking a genoise sponge and getting a Hollywood handshake because it’s really only downhill from here.

ADF’s petition is bullshit right out of the gate: “Petitioners are sidewalk counselors who engage in quiet, one-on-one conversations with women visiting an abortion clinic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” That’s the first sentence.


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If you’ve ever walked by an abortion clinic or seen one on TV, or if you follow literally any abortion provider on Twitter, you know that every last word of that sentence is a lie. The anti-choicers who flood the sidewalks in front of abortion clinics are a scourge—they shout, they harass patients, they hold graphic and ridiculous signs of fake fetuses. They pray, they sing, and generally make patients’ and providers’ lives a living hell.

They are also—not uncommonly—incredibly violent. The National Abortion Federation has been tracking anti-abortion violence since 1977. Those sidewalk counselors? Those people that ADF wants the Court to believe are just harmless grannies and peaceful citizens concerned with the wellbeing of the unborn? They’ve committed 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 189 arsons, and thousands of incidents of criminal activity directed at abortion providers.

The buffer zone law “is a prophylactic and overbroad restriction on protected speech,” the petition says. (There’s a lot to unpack there about the use of the word prophylactic, but we don’t have time for that right now.) It then launches into a diatribe about dead babies and self-crucifixion that paints the buffer zone law as an egregious assault on the freedoms of people who are simply practicing their right to shove their completely nonscientific belief that life begins at conception down the throats of people trying to access health care. The petition depicts these sidewalk counselors as public servants whose goodwill is being neutered by an overbearing government that is apparently pro-murdering babies.

“The sidewalk counselors assist women in two primary ways,” the petition goes on:

First, they have quiet conversations with and offer help and information to abortion-minded women. They provide receptive women with pamphlets about local pregnancy-center resources, pray with women, and peacefully express a message of caring support. And they take interested women to Catholic Charities to connect them with adoption assistance, financial resources, food, education, and daycare. Second, certain counselors take part in 40 Days for Life, a twice-annual vigil where participants pray outside abortion clinics and sometimes hold signs or wear shirts supporting life.

If you read past “abortion-minded,” then kudos to you. It is my literal job to read this brief, and that single word made me want to leave it all behind and start a farm in rural Maine. While ADF seems to think this passage makes sidewalk counselors appear as innocuous interlocutors between the “abortion-minded” and God, what it actually describes is an incredibly coercive, toxic, and violent display of religious zealotry. There is nothing peaceful or righteous about obstructing a patient’s right to an abortion or any other kind of reproductive health care—because, yes, there is another right at stake here, besides the alleged First Amendment rights of sidewalk counselors to be dicks.

I’ll spare you any more direct quotes from the brief, but it’s more of the same: dogmatic and absurd superiority coupled with a nauseating victim complex manufactured out of the inability to verbally and physically assault patients seeking medical care. It’s the kind of language that enables violence against patients and providers. It’s a truly grotesque display of abysmal disregard for actual human life—those of providers who live every day in fear that one of these “sidewalk counselors” will walk into their clinics with a gun and open fire, like John Salvi did in Massachusetts.

These cases do not happen in a silo. Opposition to abortion on this scale does not exist only in the abstract: in briefs and petitions and decisions from judges who will likely never know the fear of providers and patients in the face of anti-abortion violence. It also exists in the very real harassment and violence providers and patients live with every single day. Bill O’Reilly dedicated nearly 30 segments to Dr. George Tiller, which are widely thought to have contributed to the visibility that led to his assassination at church services in 2009. In 2018, doctored videos of Planned Parenthood clinics incited Robert Dear to shoot up a Colorado clinic, killing three people and injuring nine others.

Legitimizing anti-abortion zealotry is not about free speech—it’s about life and death. If the conservatives on the Roberts Court understand that point, they’ll reject ADF’s latest attempts to confuse the two.