Appeals court accepts defense of protest on religious grounds

Catholics who blockaded abortion clinic claimed they acted on beliefs

July 15, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court yesterday barred a criminal case against two Roman Catholic figures who said they intentionally broke the law against abortion clinic blockades as a result of their religious beliefs -- a claim that had led a federal judge to absolve them.

The case, closely watched from both sides of the abortion debate, appears headed to the Supreme Court in the wake of the 6-6 decision yesterday by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City.

As a result of the ruling, a federal judge's decision in favor of a retired Catholic auxiliary bishop and a Franciscan friar was left standing, and the case against them was scuttled -- unless it is revived by the Supreme Court.

The Justice Department had no comment last night, but an appeal to the Supreme Court is widely expected. The pursuit of the two clinic blockaders has been pressed by prosecutors for nearly four years, with support from officials at the Justice Department's highest levels.

The two religious figures, who staged repeated blockades of a clinic in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., had used an argument that has been made frequently, usually without success, by anti-abortion protesters.

They acknowledged that they knew their actions were illegal under a federal law that protects women's right of access to abortion clinics, but contended that their religious objection to abortion justified their actions.

The retired bishop, the Rev. George Lynch, and the friar, Brother Fidelis Moscinski, had both served jail time in New York after being convicted under state law for their protests. The federal government then pursued them under the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act.

U.S. District Judge John E. Sprizzo of New York City, in a 1997 ruling, did not fully accept their claim that the blockading was a justified act in a legal sense. But in a highly unusual ruling, he decided that because the two had acted out of "sincere, genuine, conscience-driven religious belief," they could not be found to have "willfully" broken the law by disobeying a court order against blockading.

To be a crime, the disobedience of a court order must be "willful" -- that is, deliberate.

Sprizzo also ruled that, even if they were guilty in a technical sense, he would refuse to convict them because he had authority to be lenient.

The Justice Department, arguing that the judge was wrong on both parts of his decision, appealed it to a three-judge panel of the U.S. appeals court that sits in New York City. Abortion rights groups supported that appeal, arguing that Sprizzo's ruling would make it all but impossible to enforce the federal clinic protection law.

The department contended that the admission by the two of the illegality of their blockades, in the face of a court order, meant they were guilty.

In a 2-1 decision in December, however, the appeals court panel said Sprizzo's ruling amounted to a full acquittal of the two. Therefore, the appeals court said, it would be violating their constitutional right against "double jeopardy" if it heard the government's appeal seeking to have the two men ruled guilty.

The government then asked the full 12-member appeals court to take the case. In a brief order yesterday, provoking a dissenting opinion by five of the judges favoring review, the appeals court turned aside the department's appeal without a hearing.

The result was to leave undisturbed the appeals court panel ruling against further prosecution.

Neither of the men involved, or their attorney, could be reached for comment last night. The NOW Legal Defense Fund, which had taken part in the challenge to Sprizzo's ruling, said it would not comment until it had studied the appeals court order.

Pub Date: 7/15/99

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