Mayor Mitch Landrieu caused a stir this week when he issued an official welcome to visiting anti-abortion activists in a proclamation his office subsequently said was provided in error.
The certificate, dated July 20, recognized the Rev. Flip Benham, director of Operation Save America, for “outstanding service to the city of New Orleans,” according to an image being shared by the protesters group on members’ Facebook pages.
Both New Orleans and Jefferson Parish authorities have beefed up patrols around local abortion clinics due to the group’s demonstrations, which were spurred in part by Planned Parenthood’s plan to build a 7,000-square-foot health clinic on South Claiborne Avenue.
Benham was sentenced to 18 months of probation for stalking in North Carolina in 2011 after distributing “Wanted” posters featuring the name and photo of a Charlotte abortion doctor.
Operation Save America’s supporters responded enthusiastically to Landrieu’s welcome, with one noting on Facebook: “This is a first!”
The Mayor’s Office initially downplayed the significance of the certificate.
“It is routine for the city to provide standard proclamations to visiting nonprofits, faith-based organizations and conventions that request them,” according to an email Monday from Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble. “As this group exercises its constitutional rights, the NOPD is executing a robust security plan to keep the peace.”
But as news of the group’s activities spread, prompting more than 1,200 people to sign a petition at Change.org asking the mayor to rescind his welcome, Landrieu’s office issued a second statement saying the proclamation was issued by mistake.
The issue also was featured during a national newscast on MSNBC.
“To be clear, the city does not endorse extreme or violent tactics, and this proclamation was issued in error,” Gamble wrote.
“Any group can exercise their constitutional rights, but all of us have a responsibility to do so in a respectful manner.”
Operation Save America is scheduled to remain in New Orleans until Saturday.
The group’s protest efforts have been focused on the site of the future Planned Parenthood clinic, but on Sunday, they took a different turn when members showed up inside the First Unitarian Universalist Church at South Claiborne and Jefferson avenues. A disturbance took place as the congregation was holding a moment of silence for a member of the church who died the week before, the Rev. Deanna Vandiver said.
The protesters were shouting that the church was not a true faith, she said. “Literally in our most tender and vulnerable space, religious terrorism began,” she said.
The congregation was stunned at first, unsure what was happening, Vandiver said. She then invited the protesters to stay if they could join or observe the worship service respectfully or, if not, to take their protest outside the building. The congregation began to sing, and church leaders then began to lead the most vocal protesters outside, though a few chose to stay quietly through the remainder of the service.
In an account on their website, Operation Save America trumpeted the act as a victory for their mission in a “synagogue of Satan.”
Vandiver said the Unitarian Universalist denomination has a history of supporting pro-abortion rights efforts, gay rights and other causes that Operation Save America opposes, and that the church on South Claiborne specifically has been supportive of Planned Parenthood in New Orleans.
“I think we were an easy target because we’re literally just a few blocks down the road from where they’re building this clinic,” Vandiver said. “But we are not interested in being terrorized. Freedom of speech does not trump freedom of religion.”
In addition to protesting at the Planned Parenthood site, Operation Save America is holding demonstrations outside the homes of New Orleans abortion providers. A neighbor to one of those homes — who asked that his name be withheld out of concern that the group would target him — said his family already has endured two sessions of protests, with dozens of people holding signs on the sidewalk near his house featuring graphic images that he has done his best to hide from his young children.
“My kids are scared,” the resident said. “It’s all these ugly pictures. They’re talking on the loudspeaker. I try to speak to them civilly, and it’s very difficult to do because they’re looking for a confrontation.”
His requests that the protesters turn down the volume, he said, were met with invective about the abortion provider. Ultimately, he simply closed the blinds and turned up the music in his house until the demonstrators left, but the entire street is ready for the ordeal to end, he said.
“It’s not necessarily the issue of abortion that’s frustrating to us,” he said. “It’s just their method of coming and taking over, and forcing us to deal with it.”
On Tuesday, the group also held a funeral procession in Jackson Square featuring an open casket containing what members described to The New Orleans Advocate as “a real aborted baby.”
Vandiver said she found it “deeply troubling” that the mayor would issue any sort of endorsement of the tactics being employed by Operation Save America against the city’s residents.
“I find that a questionable act of leadership,” Vandiver said.
The resident who lives near the protest site interpreted the mayor’s welcome to the group as a political move.
“It’s a Catholic city. If you come out as staunchly pro-choice or against these activists, it would be difficult for him politically,” the resident said. “Politics is politics. Personally, I’d prefer if he’d tell them to get lost.”
UptownMessenger.com is an independent online news site serving the Uptown neighborhoods of New Orleans.