Anti-abortion activists in Michigan have won permission to continue protesting outside a Detroit abortion clinic during the coronavirus pandemic.
The activists settled a lawsuit against Detroit and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) on Tuesday, after the city agreed to drop a misdemeanor ticket against one protester, Andrew Belanger, for violating Whitmer’s stay-at-home order by demonstrating outside of the Scotsdale Women’s Center.
The settlement acknowledges that Belanger and two fellow plaintiffs have a First Amendment right to engage in “expressive religious activities” outside the clinic, as long as they remain six feet away from each other.
Whitmer also issued a public statement on April 7, after the lawsuit was filed, clarifying that all Michigan residents partaking in free speech activities are exempted from her March 24 stay-at-home order, with the caveat that they adhere to social distancing guidelines recommended by the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Belanger is part of the anti-abortion organization ONElife for Life. He appears to have made it his mission to pursue “full time abortion ministry” at this specific clinic. According to his organization’s website, Belanger is “present every hour the clinic is open.”
American Freedom Law Center, the conservative religious law firm that represented Belanger, called the settlement a “clear victory” for their clients’ First Amendment rights.
Angela Vasquez-Giroux, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Michigan, told HuffPost that she believes clinic patients are accustomed to the “abusive” behavior of anti-abortion activists.
“It’s interesting that these anti-abortion extremists are claiming constitutional protection from punishment while harassing and intimidating people getting care that is expressly protected by the constitution,” Vasquez-Giroux said. “That they’re continuing in the midst of a global pandemic, in the hot spot of the entire state, shows questionable judgment, at best.”
This isn’t the only controversy that Whitmer’s stay-at-home order has sparked. On Wednesday, thousands attended a protest against the order outside the state’s Capitol.
Meanwhile, the Scotsdale Women’s Center’s executive director Shelly Miller told HuffPost she’s feeling “exhausted.” The pandemic has caused “stressful” and significant changes at the center, Miller said. They are seeing the same amount of patients as usual, but it’s taking the clinic longer to treat them while implementing safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Patients now have to wait outside before being screened and taken into the clinic one at a time, Miller said, which means they will have to face protesters’ moralizing for longer.
Belanger has been a regular fixture outside the clinic for months, she said, and he is sometimes joined by other protesters.
Miller said she saw protesters outside the clinic on Thursday without socially distancing from each other.
HuffPost has reached out to the American Freedom Law Center for comment.
“I’m all about their right to protest, I’m all about everybody’s personal feelings and rights and ability to agree and disagree,” Miller said. “But this is about people’s health and safety.”
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