The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has dropped its lawsuit against seven East Texas cities that passed ordinances, outlawing abortions inside their city limits, including the city of Waskom in Harrison County.
The notice of voluntary dismissal was filed in Marshalls’ federal court on Tuesday, dismissing action against all defendants after the cities, deemed “sanctuary cities for the unborn,” had made amendments to their ordinances, decriminalizing the organizations in the language used.
Defendants in the case were Waskom, Naples, Joaquin, Tenaha, Rusk, Gary and Wells.
“In response to our lawsuit, the seven cities we sued quickly backed down and revised their ordinances to allow pro-abortion organizations to operate within the cities and stop calling them ‘criminal,’” said Anjali Salvador, lead attorney for the ACLU of Texas in the case.
Salvador said cities cannot punish pro-abortion organizations for carrying out their important and constitutionally protected work.
“While what’s left of the ordinances is far from perfect, we have succeeded in defending our right of our clients and other organizations to freely advocate for abortion care throughout Texas,” said Salvador. “The ACLU of Texas will continue to monitor the language in these anti-abortion ordinances and we will challenge any unconstitutional attempt to enforce them on a case-by-case basis.”
The ACLU had initially filed the lawsuit in February on behalf of two abortion rights groups — Texas Equal Access Fund and the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity — to challenge the abortion ban ordinances that the cities enacted in support of Right to Life East Texas.
The ordinances were drafted by Right to Life East Texas director, Mark Lee Dickson, who launched the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn movement.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU noted that the ordinances labeled both the Lilith Fund and Texas Equal Access as “criminal entities.” Additionally, the lawsuit accused the ordinances of being unconstitutional and violating the abortion funds’ rights to free expression and association under the First Amendment.
“These ordinances prohibited abortion providers and advocates from operating within their city limits and labeled Lilith Fund and TEA Fund as criminal entities along with other advocacy organizations,” the plaintiffs explained.
Speaking on Tuesday’s withdrawal of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs said the fact that the cities “backed down” by amending their anti-abortion ordinances is a victory.
“We are very happy that every city named in our lawsuit decided to back down,” Amanda Beatriz Williams, Executive Director of Lilith Fund, said in a statement.
“Calling us out was always about one thing: intimidating us into stopping our important work,” Williams continued. “We proved today that they can’t get away with that, and we will continue to support people accessing abortion across the state.”
Kamyon Conner, Executive Director of Texas Equal Access Fund, echoed her sentiments.
“We are proud to have fought back against anti-abortion extremist efforts to limits access to and stigmatize abortion,” said Conner. “Seven cities were forced to back down on their attempts to restrict our ability to advocate for abortion access. Now members of these communities are able to advocate and seek abortion care without fear of punishment. Government should focus on ensuring access to health care rather than restricting access and shaming their communities.”
Right to Life East Texas director, Dickson, who pushed for the ordinances, said the voluntary dismissal is still a win for the defendants as the ordinances still ban abortion within the towns’ city limits.
“The removal of the designation of the Lilith Fund and the TEA Fund as ‘criminal organizations’ does not change the fact that if the Lilith Fund or the TEA Fund pays for an abortion, which takes place within any of the Sanctuary Cities, they will still be breaking the law, and would still be considered a criminal organization,” Dickson told the News Messenger.
“Despite what the ACLU may want people to believe, the amended Sanctuary City for the Unborn ordinances do not allow pro-abortion organizations to operate within the cities when their actions of paying for an abortion within the city limits would be in violation of the ordinances,” said Dickson.
He referenced Section C.2 of Waskom’s amended ordinance, which reads, “It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly aid or abet an abortion that occurs in the City of Waskom, Texas. This includes the act of, providing money with the knowledge that it will be used to pay for an abortion or the costs associated with procuring an abortion.”
Dickson further pointed out Section E.4 of Waskom’s ordinance, which states: “Private enforcement . . . may be brought against a person or entity that commits an unlawful act described in Section C upon the effective date of the ordinance, regardless of whether the Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), or permits states and municipalities to once again enforce abortion prohibitions.”
“While it is true that the amended ordinance removes calling the ACLU’s clients and others ‘criminal organizations’, the act of abortion and the act of aiding and abetting an abortion are still considered criminal acts in every city which the ACLU has sued,” said Dickson. “If the Lilith Fund or the TEA Fund or any other organization pays for an abortion within the city limits of Waskom, Naples, Joaquin, Tenaha, Rusk, Gary, or Wells, their organization is involved in criminal activity and there will be consequences. “
Sanctuary city background
In support of Right to Life East Texas, the city of Waskom unanimously approved its ordinance in June 2019, becoming Texas’ first “sanctuary city for the unborn.”
“Right to Life approached us because the abortion laws are changing in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi that the abortion clinics may start moving to Texas,” Waskom Mayor Jesse Moore, explained at the time. “With Waskom being the first city, 18 miles (west) from (Shreveport) Louisiana, they were anticipating one moving over here.
“The citizens in Waskom, they don’t want to have an abortion clinic in Waskom, so they presented the board with an ordinance and resolution that will make abortions in the city of Waskom a criminal offense,” the mayor said.
When the city of Waskom amended its ordinance back in March, Dickson said the amendments were made not only in response to the lawsuit filed, but to make the ordinance even stronger.
“Before, the Waskom ordinance allowed for elective abortions in the cases of rape or incest,” explained Dickson. “Now those exceptions have been removed. Now we can truly say all surgical and medical abortions have been outlawed in Waskom.”
“Calling them a criminal organization is not all that important because if an abortion is committed here or if they pay for an abortion, they’ve broken the law — period,” he added. “Ultimately this prevents the abortion industry from doing what, in the past, they have mentioned doing in Waskom.”
Dickson said before that the lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of the Lilith Fund and the TEA (Texas Equal Access) Fund against seven of the sanctuary cities for the unborn were without merit.
ACLU spokesperson, Imelda Mejia, said the towns may have proclaimed themselves sanctuary cities, but the law still stands in all 50 states: abortion is legal.
“Their residents have the legal right to seek abortion care and our plaintiffs have the right to do pro-abortion work in their cities,” Imelda said.
Dickson with Right to Life maintained that the lawsuit was nothing but a publicity stunt to deter other cities from creating sanctuaries for the unborn. He said he plans to continue soliciting other cities to join the movement.
“The ACLU’s decision to withdraw its lawsuit means that other cities can enact these ordinances without fear of an adverse court ruling,” said Dickson. This movement is sweeping across Texas and we do not expect to be stopping anytime soon.”
“We will continue to do our part to help outlaw abortion in every city that is willing to enact these ordinances,” he said.
Other cities in Texas that passed similar abortion ban ordinances but were not named in the ACLU’s lawsuit include the cities of Gilmer, Westbrook, Colorado City, and Big Spring. Dickson said the city of Whiteface also voted to outlaw abortion after the ACLU lawsuit was filed.