Hundreds of anti-choice activists are currently congregating in New Orleans to stage protests against abortion around the city, an event that’s expected to last all week long. So far, tensions have come to a head in an unexpected place: the sanctuary of a church, where abortion opponents interrupted a service to tell congregants that they don’t have a “true faith” because their denomination supports reproductive rights.
This week’s protests are being spearheaded by the national anti-abortion group Operation Save America, which used to go by the name Operation Rescue National. That far-right organization, frequently criticized for its “militant” tactics, is perhaps best known for being tied to Dr. George Tiller’s assassination. And on Sunday, as part of its week long protest in Louisiana, group members decided to take their message straight to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans.
As the Uptown Messenger reports, anti-abortion activists interrupted worship at the church — specifically, disrupting a moment of silence for a church member who recently passed away — to declare that this particular church isn’t a “true faith” and tell the service attendees to “repent.” Operation Save America’s opinion about the First Unitarian Universalist Church is made clear on its website, which refers to the “church” and its “pastor” in scare quotes and calls it a “synagogue of Satan.”
Rev. Deanna Vandiver, a guest speaker at the service, invited the protesters to either join the service respectfully or hold their protest outside of the building. As the congregation sang, church leaders led the loudest anti-abortion activists out of the sanctuary.
Vandiver told the Uptown Messenger that she wasn’t entirely sure why the church was targeted — but it’s likely because of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s progressive stance on reproductive rights. Even before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion throughout the country, UU churches officially affirmed the right to choose. Since then, the religious body has passed several resolutions related to reproductive justice and continues to be very involved in efforts to support abortion rights. The Unitarian Universalist Association’s official policy states an explicit opposition to “any attempt to enact a position on private morality into public law.”
“Beloved, we have a lot of different opinions in this country about family planning. I believe, however, that there is a moral consensus about religious terrorism. NO ONE should invade the sanctuary of another’s faith to terrorize people as they worship,” Vandiver wrote on Facebook following the incident. “I call on everyone of every faith tradition and no faith tradition to stand with on the side of love and resist the evil of the week of hate being visited upon the city of New Orleans.”
Holding protests in church is certainly not unheard of, although it often walks a fine line. In 2012, members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot were infamously arrested after performing a “punk prayer” in Russia’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, criticizing corruption within the Orthodox Church and calling for Putin’s removal. And in the 1980s, thousands of LGBT activists protested at Catholic churches to call for more inclusive policies on abortion, homosexuality, and AIDS; although most of those protesters gathered outside of church buildings, several dozen were criticized for entering a sanctuary and disrupting Mass.
Local law enforcement is on alert as they anticipate more potentially disruptive protests from Operation Save America activists this week. Anti-abortion activists have already held an open-casket wake for a fetus in a public square. And outraged residents of one New Orleans neighborhood complained that their privacy was violated on Saturday when protesters picketed the private home of a doctor who lives there.
Nonetheless, over the weekend, the mayor of New Orleans issued an official proclamation of welcome to the protesters, signing a certificate thanking the anti-choice group for its “service” to the city. That prompted more than 500 New Orleans residents to sign a petition asking the mayor to reconsider. “Regardless of personal ideologies, most Americans agree that harassing women and threatening doctors is extreme behavior that should not be welcomed by the mayor’s office. The certificates signed by you gives them a legitimacy that they do not deserve,” the petition reads.
The members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans appear to feel similarly. “Whatever your faith tradition, I invite you to stand with Unitarian Universalists and other liberal religions besieged by hate-filled rhetoric that can trip so easily from violent words to violent deeds,” Rev. Deanna Vandiver wrote in a blog post about the incident.