Mayor Woodward to controversial anti-abortion church and Planned Parenthood: Let's sit down and talk

click to enlarge Mayor Woodward to controversial anti-abortion church and Planned Parenthood: Let's sit down and talk
Daniel Walters photo
Ken Peters, pastor of the Church at Planned Parenthood.
To patrons of Spokane's Planned Parenthood clinic, the facility offers many services including behavioral health, transgender hormone replacement therapy, sports physicals, vasectomy, contraception and, most controversially, abortion services.

But to local anti-abortion Pastor Ken Peters, Planned Parenthood also represents another setting: the "gates of hell." And it's the job of a Christian church, he argues, to prevail against the gates of hell.

In October 2018, inspired by a sermon from anti-abortion protest movement leader Rusty Thomas, Peters launched "the Church at Planned Parenthood," conducting worship, prayer and fiery anti-abortion preaching on the public lawn directly outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Indiana Avenue on Wednesday evenings. Peters didn't consider it a protest. He considered it church.

But Planned Parenthood considered it something else: harassment. The clinic reported that the amplified sermons and condemnations from the Church at Planned Parenthood would leak through their clinic walls, and that, according to their attorney, "patients and caregivers cannot hear each other speak even when sitting right across from each other."

Over the last year and a half, tensions between the church, Planned Parenthood and pro-choice counter-protesters have continued to ratchet up. Teams of armed police officers have attended some City Council meetings, responding to unspecified social media threats. And this Monday, the conflict will come to a head when the City Council will likely pass Councilwoman Lori Kinnear's resolution intended to strengthen the city's noise ordinance in response to the concerns.

But last Friday, Mayor Nadine Woodward took her own action: Her staff sent out an email to both Peters and Karl Eastlund, CEO of the Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, with a message: Let's all sit down and talk.

"Mayor Woodward asked if we could arrange a meeting to discuss the current concerns about noise, assembly, ordinances, etc," the email reads. "We are hopeful to have a small group that represents the voices of interested parties. This includes each of you, the Police Chief, Councilmember Kinnear, Council President Beggs, the Mayor and the City Administrator."

City spokesman Brian Coddington says the proposal to bring everyone together was Mayor Woodward's idea. The mayor, he says, was concerned about the sheer number of police officers and supervisors who were needed to keep the peace — and handle existing noise ordinance complaints — during services.

According to an email from the Spokane Police Department to Councilman Michael Cathcart, the law enforcement response to the Jan. 29 Church at Planned Parenthood service required one police captain, one lieutenant, two sergeants, one detective and eight police officers, costing the taxpayer more than $5,450 in police overtime in a single night.

Woodward, Coddington says, was "looking for a chance to be an intermediary for the situation and seeing if there's another solution that doesn’t involve a commitment of city resources."

“Local government might be one fo the last places we can get around everyone in the same table with common goals: Let’s keep everyone safe, and protect everyone’s rights,”  City Administrator Wes Crago says. “I think the mayor, to her credit, said, 'Let’s reach out to both sides and let’s set up a dialogue.'”

Peters, for his part, accepted the meeting. But while Planned Parenthood said it was "glad the mayor is taking this issue seriously" and agreed to meet with the mayor, it refused to attend a meeting where Peters was present.

"Mr. Peters continues to incite his followers with violent rhetoric and has vowed to continue to disrupt our health care services," Eastlund wrote in an email. "You would be better off meeting with him and police separately to discuss how enforcement will impact him and his followers."
click to enlarge Mayor Woodward to controversial anti-abortion church and Planned Parenthood: Let's sit down and talk
Daniel Walters photo
Ken Peters greets Rep. Matt Shea at a December meeting of the Church at Planned Parenthood.


On Tuesday, Pastor Ken Peters walked into City Hall for a meeting with the mayor, members of her administration, and two members of the City Council. The parties agreed they wouldn't share the specifics of the meeting with the public, but in an interview with the Inlander, Peters portrayed the meeting as an encouraging sign.

"It’s the first step in the right direction," Peters tells the Inlander. "I think we made some progress. I’m hopeful for a win-win."

He says the mayor wasn't trying to take one side or the other, only looking for ways that everyone could accomplish what she wanted to accomplish.

"I think she’s wanting to work this out so where it doesn’t escalate," Peters says. "I think she’s doing exactly what a mayor should do, trying to resolve problems at a table and bring all the parties together."

City Council President Breean Beggs says there was "no grand resolution" or possible third-way compromise floated at the meeting that would result in delaying or canceling Monday night's vote. Instead, he sees the possibility of addressing the conflict after the ordinance passes.

"I did see a way forward that people could coexist with each other under the law," Beggs says.

When asked by the Inlander, Peters did express openness to compromise by altering aspects of his service — such as starting a little later or meeting across the street instead of directly in front of the clinic. Still, he says holding the service near Planned Parenthood is an important part of his message.

"The closer we can get to Planned Parenthood the better," Peters says. 

Peters says he sees himself in somewhere of the middle between the softer "pro-life" side of the anti-abortion movement and the more radical "abolitionist" anti-abortion activists.

Peter denied his intention was to disrupt Planned Parenthood and also condemned the use of violence to oppose abortion.

"You can’t stop sin with sin. You stop sin with holiness," Peters says. "God’s weaponry are prayer and worship and preaching. It’s never any kind of sin or violence. ... We wouldn’t harm a flea."

Still, for Peters, Kinnear's proposed noise ordinance itself represents tyranny and oppression.

"For us, it’s our constitutional rights of freedom of worship and freedom of speech and freedom to peaceably assemble without a dark cloud held over our head," Peters says. "That’s what we want and that’s what we’re fighting for."

In a Facebook video this week, Peters encouraged his supporters to turn out in droves to speak out against the ordinance this Monday.

“Let the City Council feel the weight of our presence, as they vote away our free speech,” Ken Peters told his supporters in a Facebook video.

The draft version of Kinnear's ordinance goes beyond the state standard barring "noise that unreasonably disturbs the peace within" a health facility. Instead, it bans intentionally making any noise outside a health care facility that is intended to cause or actually causes "interference with the safe and effective delivery of health services within the building" after a law enforcement officer has told them to cease. Not only that, but it allows individuals to sue violators directly in civil court.

Today, Peters confirmed that they'd already brought on the American Center for Liberty and Justice, the anti-abortion law-firm headed by Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, to potentially challenge Kinnear's resolution. 

"I’m hoping that we’ll find a resolution with all parties involved, so we don’t have to go to court and use lawyers and all that stuff," Peters says.

However, Supreme Court rulings have been generally supportive of noise restrictions put on protesters outside of abortion clinics. While a 1993 Supreme Court case struck down parts of a law that restricted the use of protester signs outside an abortion clinic, the decision explicitly upheld the part of the law restricting noise within earshot of patients in the clinic.

"The First Amendment does not demand that patients at a medical facility undertake Herculean efforts to escape the cacophony of political protests," wrote Chief Justice William Renquist, a Reagan appointee. 

But while Peters talks about the importance of obeying authority, he also points to biblical figures like Daniel, who, in the Old Testament, was thrown in a lion's den for refusing to abide by a law banning prayer to anyone but the pagan king.

"He didn’t go run and hide, he kept praying," Peters says. "There’s law that is higher than man’s law — God’s law. The kingdom of heaven has laws that are higher than the United States of America."

In other words, even if the law passes, don't expect the Church at Planned Parenthood to go away quietly.

"We’re going to show up until Jesus Christ comes to take us home or until abortion is abolished in America," Peters says.
click to enlarge Mayor Woodward to controversial anti-abortion church and Planned Parenthood: Let's sit down and talk
Daniel Walters photo
Planned Parenthood has repeatedly asked counter-protesters like these to quit it. In recent months, the numbers of counter-protesters have dwindled as a result.


Paul Dillon, vice president of public affairs, says that Planned Parenthood met with city officials on Thursday. Woodward, he says, left the meeting early on, but other officials like Police Chief Craig Meidl and City Administrator Wes Crago stayed to listen.

"The meeting really started with us explaining how this has been escalating and the fears around that," Dillon says. "It seemed like at the end of the day they understood that and also had concerns." 

He says they also explained to the city why they weren't interested in meeting with Peters. They don't believe he's harmless.

Dillon sent the Inlander a slew of screenshots of comments from Peters on social media to bolster the argument that Peters is looking to interfere with the clinic, not just to sing worship songs and pray outside.

"The Planned Parenthood Staff fled the building in fear when we showed up and started our church service," Peters wrote on Facebook in October 2018. 

In another, Peters writes about launching a daytime service of the Church at Planned Parenthood and reveling in the disruption it caused. "It was awesome," Peters writes. "Shut them down pretty much. They rescheduled all their murders."

In another, a woman laments to Peters that women have been going to the Pullman Planned Parenthood to have abortions because "no one harasses them as they enter. We need to change this," and Peters responds by saying, "Did not know this. Thank you."

Pressed on these statements by the Inlander, Peters maintained he did not support harassment and was not attempting to disrupt the clinic — at least not through loud noises.

"We did want women coming in for abortion to see us out there worshipping and maybe reconsider," Peters says.

To him, there's a distinction: Yelling at a woman that she's a "baby murderer" is harassment,  but softly pleading with her not to kill her baby is advocacy.

But here's the thing: Even if everyone at the Church at Planned Parenthood all decided to convert to Buddhism and move to live in a commune in Oregon, Planned Parenthood would still want the more severe noise ordinance.

"It’s bigger than just the Church at Planned Parenthood," Dillon says. The Church at Planned Parenthood supporters, after all, aren't the only protesters. Indeed, at City Council meetings, supporters of Peters' church try to distance themselves from the actions of some of the other anti-abortion protesters.

Confrontations between anti-abortion activists and counter-protesters can become particularly disruptive, Dillon says.

"This guy just drove his car right up to the egress and just looked like he was going to ram [an anti-abortion activist] but stops his car, and just laid on the horn for 15-minutes," Dillon says. "That is really scary." 

Dillon says that Planned Parenthood has repeatedly been explicit with counter-protesters: They're not helping.

"This law should apply to counter-protests, too," Dillon says. "Noise is noise, it doesn’t matter."

Because ultimately, Planned Parenthood's complaint is about both the enforcement of the law and the alleged violators of it.

"We’re worried that the word is out that Spokane is a place you can come and protest without consequences," Dillon says.

Going forward, Dillon says, he wants Planned Parenthood and other health care providers to have the power to determine whether a noise is disruptive — instead of just leaving it up to the police.

Planned Parenthood supporters were particularly horrified this month when a records request revealed a cop on a body camera assessing the comparative aesthetic merits of the women on each side of the abortion divide.
"We’ve been having conversations with the city administration and the police since I started here in 2015," Dillon says. "There always seemed a reluctance to really respond to the noise outside of health care facilities."
click to enlarge Mayor Woodward to controversial anti-abortion church and Planned Parenthood: Let's sit down and talk
Daniel Walters photo
Nadine Woodward at her campaign kickoff breakfast last year.


Last year, when Woodward was introduced for her mayoral campaign kickoff breakfast, she was praised for her work with a variety of nonprofits, including Life Services' crisis pregnancy center, an anti-abortion group that aims to both help pregnant women and discourage them from having abortions, sometimes through controversial tactics. Pressed on her position on the issue by the Inlander last year, she said she was in favor of women having "choices," emphasizing the "S."

And at a Spokesman-Review hosted candidate forum last year, Woodward was asked by Planned Parenthood's Dillon what she would do to enforce existing noise ordinances at health care facilities like Planned Parenthood. She replied in generalities.

"Noise ordinances should be enforced everywhere. In neighborhoods, on business districts, I would say they should be enforced everywhere," Woodward said. "I would say everywhere, doesn't matter where it is."

But now, that she's mayor, the question has gone from theoretical to very real: To start with, she has to decide if she'll veto Kinnear's ordinance or sign it.
On Thursday afternoon, Coddington said Woodward hadn't committed to either course yet, saying the language of the resolution could still be changed.

"There still needs to be legal review of the language to make sure it’s practical and implementable," Coddington says. Coddington says the mayor's primarily driven by the burden the conflict has put on the Police Department, and the interests of the surrounding neighborhood.

Coddington says the mayor is still looking to broker an agreement between the two groups.

“There is a hope that, at some point, we could get to a point where there is a mutually accepted solution,” Coddington says. “That typically happens better when you can have both parties at the table at the same time.”

Because after all, if the ordinance passes Monday, it won't necessarily stop the conflict. It will just mean a whole new era of enforcement.