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Elkfest to see protest return
Abortion opponents, arrested last year will be back, plan to read Bible at doctor’s office.
By Emma Breysse, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: April 4, 2012
A religious group that drew fire last year over displays of photos of aborted fetuses plans to visit Jackson twice this spring, including the weekend of Elkfest.
The Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas, assistant director of Operation Save America, said Tuesday the group plans to send protestors to the Elkfest event in May. Police arrested two members of the group last year for allegedly violating an injunction, leading to a battle over free speech that remains in front of Wyoming’s Supreme Court.
The group also plans to send protesters here in late April to march in front of Dr. Brent Blue’s office.
“There’s going to be wave after wave,” Thomas said. “We’re just trying to give God reason to show mercy to a land that’s killing babies.”
Participants plan to read the entire Bible aloud in front of Blue’s office this month as part of an expanded campaign. They say he is Wyoming’s sole abortion provider.
The “Word in Warfare” protest will last three days, Thomas said, but he could not give specific dates.
Jackson Town Clerk Olivia Goodale said Operation Save America applied for a permit to protest “along the western fence” of the park on Town Square between May 16 and May 20. The Boy Scout elk antler auction portion of Elkfest, which is on Town Square, is scheduled for May 19.
Goodale’s office is still processing the permit request, she said, so she declined to comment further. The Jackson Town Council likely will decide on the permit April 16, she said.
When asked why Operation Save America chose to come during the event a second time, pastor Mark Holick of Spirit One Ministries said the reasons are purely practical.
“It’s just that it’s the same weekend we came last year and it works for everyone,” he said.
Last year’s protests, which were the first of Operation Save America’s campaign to eliminate abortion from states where the practice is “vulnerable,” drew counter-fire from pro-choice locals who objected to graphic signs.
By the time of the 2011 antler auction, Lt. Bob Gilliam of the Jackson Police Department said in an affidavit that he feared allowing the graphic photos at the auction would lead to violence against the group.
This year, Wyoming event leader Holick said members of the group plan on adding a much larger tower display that prominently features photos of aborted fetuses, but they would probably work with the town if officials asked them not to use it during the antler auction.
Jackson Police Sgt. Cole Nethercott said local law enforcement is aware of both planned protests and is working out the best response in light of the potential for conflict.
“As of the current time, we don’t have any plans in place, but we are planning how best to be ready,” he said. “Our concern is the safety of all involved on all sides, whether protestors coming or local citizen protestors.”
Last year, the town sought a temporary injunction barring the group from Town Square during the antler auction. Public safety concerns, along with worries about exposing Boy Scouts to the photos and potential violence, swayed 9th District Judge Timothy Day, who granted the order the evening before the auction.
Operation Save America did not hear about the attempt to obtain the injunction, or the order, until the morning of the auction.
When Holick and another group member passed out literature in the square, police arrested them. Teton County Prosecutor Steve Weichman later asked that the misdemeanor charges of violating a court order be dismissed.
He said Tuesday he remembers language in a Wyoming Supreme Court case at the time that gave him “very grave concerns” about whether the charges were appropriate. He said Tuesday he couldn’t recall the specifics because he was not in his office at the time of a telephone interview.
Holick contends dropping the charges was part of a deliberate strategy to silence a message town officials didn’t like.
“That’s the way police departments silence the gospel or speech they don’t want to hear,” he said. “They arrest you and then say, ‘Oh, never mind’ and dismiss the charges once they’ve done what they wanted to do.”
Weichman said he preferred not to address Holick’s remarks or make any statements not already on the record in a court of law regarding the situation.
Holick’s accusations are “patently untrue,” Town Administrator Bob McLaurin said. The group was barred only from Town Square and only during the day of the auction. Operation Save America has the right to return and protest if members choose, McLaurin said. He said he knew of the permit application but hadn’t seen it, so he was not comfortable commenting further.
Holick said he was worried about the town’s reaction to his group this year.
“I think we saw last year that First Amendment guarantees are not of any importance to the Jackson police,” he said.
Last year’s conflict lives on in the Wyoming Supreme Court, where Operation Save America appealed the original restraining order, claiming the process the town went through to get it was unconstitutional.
The town did not notify representatives of Operation Save America about the hearing on the order, which occurred about 12 hours before the antler auction began.
There were other legal remedies aside from a restraining order for public safety worries, the group argued in its appeal. The town argued there was a pressing and immediate need to protect the town and the auction attendees, and the terms only applied to a limited time, date and area, so the law allowed for the order.
The high court heard oral arguments on the case in November, but has yet to issue a decision.