WICHITA, Kan. (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pro-life signs are being censored by the Wichita City Council. At the request of the abortion mills, city council members recently revised the ordinance on public signs, eliminating the use of freestanding displays. According to the law passed on April 28, only handheld signs are allowed on public easements. Even chalk displays and those taped to tables and chairs are now illegal.
"The way the new sign ordinance is being implemented, it is obviously illegally targeting the pro-life activists and their audiences," said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue.
Church Militant reached out to Operation Rescue, the Kansas-based, pro-life group at the center of the dispute, to discuss the impact of the law. We spoke with Senior Vice President Cheryl Sullenger, who is calling the law "extremely problematic" for the reason that "anyone who looks at the sign can determine the legality of it and take the sign."
"This creates additional tension where police should be looking to ease tensions," she told Church Militant.
She said the law itself does not target pro-life displays but in practice "it is content-based," noting that — while standing in front of her building — "real estate signs are still there. Yard signs are there."
She noted that the city has had a long history of legal disputes between pro-life groups and abortion mills. A huge cross display, used by pro-life activists in the area since 2004 and legally contested numerous times over the course of the years, was always found to be protected under the First Amendment. It is now banned by this new ordinance, clearly an infringement on First Amendment rights.
Mark S. Gietzen, chairman of Kansas Coalition for Life (KCFL) who owns the displays, wrote a letter to the Wichita City Council on May 8, where he noted, "[D]uring the past 13 years, NOT ONE city of Wichita sign-related complaint or citation has been issued, that stood up in court, even at the lowest levels of court."
The new sign code is written as if the city has the power to deny basic Constitutional rights to the pro-life side of the abortion question. The KCFL displays that were found to be illegal by the city of Wichita on Friday, April 28th, had been in continuous use in Wichita since 2004 and had survived numerous legal challenges over the years, based on First Amendment protections for signage that is accompanied by a person willing to be continuously present with the signs and displays.
Sullenger believes the ordinance was changed owing to this history that has resulted in numerous legal battles from illegal seizures of signs and harrassment of the pro-life groups in Wichita, noting that the police department was forced to return illegally confiscated signs from KCFL in the past.
In July 2016, a 73-year-old, pro-life activist who is legally blind was arrested for assault on a security guard over the removal of a sign at South Wind Women's Center. The sign ordinance had been recently implemented in 2016, allowing removal of unattended signs. The security guard for the abortion mill was attempting to steal a sign the elderly man momentarily leaned against a table. During the tussle over the sign, the elderly man bumped the guard and was arrested by police.
Three weeks later, South Wind's security guard Carl Swinney viciously assaulted a pro-life mother in front of her children. Church Militant spoke with the victim of the assault, Julie McCoy, a mother of 12 children and a sidewalk activist.
"I have known Carl for 11 years; he would get in your face," she told Church Militant.
Driving by the abortion mill late one evening, she was surprised to see the gates open. She stopped to take pictures and video of the unusual circumstances, as abortion mills have had numerous cases of botched abortions.
She said of Swinney, "He wanted to make sure I wasn't getting pictures as I was trying to." He approached her and in full view of her children, violently grabbing and twisting her arm. She delayed medical treatment to go home and console her children, one who asked in fear, "Does Carl know where we live?"
Swinney was convicted of the attack but is appealing.
Sullenger explained to Church Militant that the mainstream media in Wichita clearly favors the abortion mills and "won't air our side." She said their reporting is meant to "manipulate people."
Operation Rescue is working with the Thomas More Society to repeal the law. Sullenger clarified that they are awaiting action until the next city council meeting, where they want council members to "voluntarily rescind the ordinance." If they don't, "they will face legal action."
Newman said, "The Wichita City Council must rescind the unconstitutional law that favors South Wind's shoddy and exploitative abortion business above the First Amendment rights of its citizens."