|Pro Life Rights|
Sheriff's deputies tried to break up vigil, priest says
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Abortion foes blocking ramp, Sheriff Blake Dorning says
A local priest claims two Madison County sheriff's deputies tried to break up an anti-abortion prayer vigil on the courthouse steps Wednesday.
The Rev. James Henderson said he and others attending the North Alabama Pastors Stand for Life event were harassed and repeatedly threatened with arrest, even though the rally had the blessing of county leaders.
News Story from the Huntsville Times - Pro-Life Christians have the rights of Free Speech also. Subject: Sheriff's deputies tried to break up vigil, priest says - al.com
Sheriff Blake Dorning
Dear Sheriff Blake Dorning:
Thank you for agreeing to meet with me next week concerning the misconduct of your deputies at our North Alabama Pastors Stand for Life at the Courthouse on January 14th. Your deputies were totally out of line when they rudely walked up to our podium on the east side of the courthouse and interrupted one of our ministers who was sharing the Gospel in a message for approximately 100 pastors and lay people and told him he would have to stop, a message that was the central focus of our observance of the anniversary of Roe vs Wade.
The more belligerent of your two employees then threatened us with arrest anytime we tried to ask a question.
We don't appreciate this kind of bullying behavior by the Madison County Sheriffs Department, behavior that clearly violates our Constitutional right to free speech. We expect something to be done about it.
You told the Huntsville Times that your deputies were called because we were blocking the handicapped ramp as though we were purposely blocking a public right of way. This is untrue. The truth is they came to break up our event which was in process, not just to clear a passageway for a ramp. In fact it was at least 10 to 15 minutes after your deputies had stopped our event that the matter of the handicapped ramp was even mentioned. My wife commented to the deputies that we have come every year since 2000 with permission to stand on the courthouse steps. When they heard the word steps they then took notice that there were no actual steps at one point on the sidewalk, but a ramp where some of the participants were standing, and then made the statement that we were blocking the handicapped ramp, at which time the people split from side to side to open up the middle of the ramp for passage. No handicapped person was ever there to use this ramp. Had they been, we would have certainly cleared the way and even assisted them. You also said your deputies left after verifying the event had been oked by Howard Baites. This is a long way from the truth. You were also quoted by the Times saying that your deputies, according to what your lieutenant said, were operating within the scope of their responsibilities. I suspect you said this in good faith based on misrepresentation of the truth by your employees who got caught overstepping their bounds.
You comments to the Times sidestepped too much of the truth and raises too many questions. For one we want to know why your deputies did not check themselves with Howard Baites to make sure we had permission before barreling in on our event, placing his hand on the back of the minister who was speaking and telling him he had to stop! Men, women and children and babies were present at this event and for these children to see these two bullying deputies walk up and stop this pastor from speaking and threatening us with arrest was scary to them and totally inexcusable and sends exactly the wrong message! This is the kind of situation one would expect only in a primitive Third World country, not in Huntsville, Alabama.
This action was totally uncalled for and is a crime against our 1st Amendment rights as well as an insult to the Christian people of Madison County.
The following is what really happened. Two officers, one, a larger individual, with a smirk on his face, walked by me, the coordinator of the event, at about 12:20pm and stepped up to the speaker telling him, You have to stop. When I spoke up that we had approval to be there your officer ignored me and told me two different times that we were not supposed to be there and would have to leave. I was doing every conciliatory thing I could to prevent disruption of a sacred event, offering to move to the city sidewalk and offering to move to another spot on the courthouse steps. He then told me that if they let us be out there they would have to let anybody be out there and nobody is allowed there for protests. He would not listen to me even when I repeatedly told him Howard Baites had approved our being there. When my wife and two others spoke up to explain that we had permission to be there, the belligerent deputy angrily yelled each time that if we said another word we could be arrested. The fact that both deputies had stacks of folded documents in their hands made me believe they had come prepared to arrest us. I then proceeded to use my cell phone and called Howard Baites; office so that he could confirm to the deputies that we had permission to be on the Courthouse steps holding our event. After the deputies realized I had called Howard Baites office they started to back peddle and their demeanor became somewhat softer. Because Howard Bates was at lunch, his secretary had to track him down and have him call back. As we waited for the return call from Mr. Bates, the deputies were on their cell phone and then hung up and said to everyone that “you can go ahead” and they walked off with no explanation and no apology! Our event was interrupted for close to 20 minutes! The net effect was that your deputies disrupted and shut down a peaceful and proper spiritual observance for absolutely no reason at all!
They clearly had come looking for trouble, not to clear the handicapped ramp or certainly not treat us with courtesy and respect. and abused our pro life rights
So how should this situation have been handled by your people? If it really was a matter of only making sure a lane was clear at the handicapped ramp, all your people would have had to do was to politely and quietly walk up to anyone standing in the ramp and ask them to move, and they very apologetically would have done so. This would have taken care of it and our event would not have been shut down for close to twenty minutes while your main deputy insulted us. Another solution would have been to quietly ask to speak privately with the event coordinator without stopping the event to verify our situation and to ask that we make sure the ramp was clear. None of this was done.
It is very clear that the situation was not at all the way your people reported to you. It was in fact the kind of heavy handed abuse of police power that gives communities a bad name. This spectacle certainly did not reflect favorably on Madison County and the Madison County Courthouse Sheriff’s Department.
Our strong inclination is to press for aggressive public action to make sure these abuses don’t occur again, but as Christians we are obligated to seek correction and harmonious resolution of this kind of offense as expediently as possible. This we are willing to do before we take it to the churches of Madison County, the Madison County Commission or to the national pro-life groups, and others.
In short, your department owes an unequivocal written public apology for this incident to the pastors and church members of Madison County. Our basic American Pro Life Constitutional Rights have been violated.
Reverend James R. Henderson
256 337 0826
February 12, 2009
ELECTRONIC MAIL AND HAND DELIVERY Mike Gillespie, Chairman
Madison County Commission
Blake L. Dorning, Sheriff
Madison County Sheriff’s Office
Re: Unwarranted interference of pro-life vigil by Sheriff’s Deputies
Dear Chairman Gillespie and Sheriff Blake Dorning:
The Foundation for Moral Law is a religious-liberties legal organization based in Montgomery, Alabama and dedicated to defending constitutional freedom in this state and nationwide. The Foundation was recently contacted by pro-life advocate Rev. James Henderson because of an incident that occurred during a public pro-life prayer vigil on January 14, 2009, held on the steps of the Madison County Courthouse, as it has been every year since 2000. According to Rev. Henderson and a January 15, 2009 article in the Huntsville Times, the annual North Alabama Pastors Stand for Life event was held on January 14 on the courthouse steps with the approval of County Administrator Howard Baites. Approximately 100 people were in attendance that day to show support for life and to commemorate the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
During the event observances indeed, in the middle of one of the ministers sermons two Madison County Sheriff Deputies walked right up to the speaker, interrupted his sermon, and ordered the attendees to immediately leave. Those who tried to ask a question of the intruding Deputies or explain that they had the County's permission to be there were met with bullying and threats of arrest. The Deputies halted the pro-life service for up to 20 minutes and only relented when Rev. Henderson called Administrator Baites office. The Sheriff Office later claimed that attendees were blocking a handicapped ramp, but the Deputies made no mention of this issue until 10 minutes or so after the service was interrupted. If this was indeed the reason for the abrupt disruption, then it seems obvious that halting a sermon, ordering attendees to leave, and threatening arrests is not the most appropriate and efficient way to achieve clear passage to a handicapped ramp.
The Foundation is concerned that the flagrant and unapologetic interruption of a peaceful, pro-life vigil caused a deprivation of Rev. Henderson and the other attendees constitutional rights of free speech, free exercise of religion, and peaceable assembly. Although the Sheriffs Deputies eventually left and allowed the service to continue, [t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury. Elrod v. Burns, 427 U. S. 347, 373 (1976).
Because this was the first time such an intrusion occurred, the Foundation understands that this may have been a simple miscommunication amongst county employees. Regardless, it seems that the Madison County Sheri ifs Deputies could be more carefully instructed as to procedures for verifying the lawfulness of a peaceful assembly and ensuring that constitutional liberties are not so carelessly trod upon. Additionally, the parties involved should be satisfied with a good-faith, written apology and an assurance by the County and/or the Sheriffs Office that such unwarranted interruptions will not mar future pro-life vigils at the Madison County Courthouse. The Foundation for Moral Law will be monitoring this situation and would be happy to discuss this matter further with you.
FOUNDATION FOR MORAL LAW
Benjamin D. DuPré, Esq.
Read more about Sheriff Dorning: Sheriff Dorning
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