Pastor Chuck O'Neal paces in front of Lovejoy Surgicenter, the Northwest Portland abortion clinic, wearing shorts, a black backpack and a wireless microphone. Members of O'Neal's Beaverton Grace Bible Church, including two teenage boys, stand with signs that read âCriminalize Abortionâ and âBabies Are Murdered Here.â
O'Neal has a video camera aimed at the clinic's front door—he posts footage from the protests on his church's website—but he insists he's not trying to intimidate Lovejoy Surgicenter's patients or staff.
"We're recording what's taking place here," he says. "But what's taking place inside is the murder of babies."
Abortion protesters regularly show up in front of the 42-year-old clinic, located at Northwest Lovejoy Street and 25th Avenue.
But Beaverton Grace Bible Church is louder and more combative than other protest groups, says Allene Klass, CEO and owner of Lovejoy Surgicenter.
"They're punishing. They're nasty. They're mean," Klass says. "They are trying to intimidate and they are trying to embarrass."
One Oregon official says he is trying a new way to leverage the state's civil rights laws against anti-abortion protesters.
State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian says he has started an informal inquiry into the Lovejoy Surgicenter protesters under Oregon's laws banning discrimination and requiring "full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation."
It's the same law state officials use to prohibit discrimination based on race, religion or sexual orientation.
Last year, for example, Avakian's Bureau of Labor and Industries used the public accommodations statute to launch an investigation into the Twilight Room Annex (formerly the P Club) for allegedly barring transgender patrons from entering the nightclub.
The statute was also used in a 1998 case against Burger King, when an assistant manager at one restaurant would not serve a black woman.
In the case of Beaverton Grace Bible Church, Avakian says women who might be affected by the protesters have a constitutional right to seek an abortion.
âThis is the first time that the BOLI has investigated something like this,â Avakian says.
If Avakian pushes forward, the case could pit the right to privacy of Lovejoy's Surgicenter's patients against the protesters' right of free expression.
Avakian acknowledges the legal theory behind the case is untested; so far, he says, the inquiry has not turned up a complaint by a woman who feels she was denied access to the clinic because of the protests.
Klass says it is not her intent to silence every rally that occurs at the clinic.
"We have never tried to stop peaceful protests," Klass says. "It's the First Amendment. I think that BOLI is trying to see if the behavior goes beyond protected speech."
Mark McDougal, a lawyer and partner at Kafoury and McDougal, says the civil rights law is intended to prevent businesses or those associated with a business from discriminating. He doesn't think it would extend to protesters.
"I think it's a stretch," McDougal says, "but I wish them luck."
Beth Creighton, a Portland civil rights attorney, says Avakian's approach could work if the state can show its interest in protecting patients' rights outweighs the protesters' right to free speech.
"I definitely think it's a very ingenious way to go about it," Creighton says.
Lovejoy Surgicenter has had legal battles with anti-abortion groups in the past.
In 1991, the center won a federal injunction against protesters blocking its doors, and an $8.2 million state judgment against abortion protestors who harassed patients. A year later, Lovejoy was targeted by an arsonist.
Since then, Klass says, anti-abortion groups have been more careful about how they conduct themselves—until now. She says the Beaverton Grace Bible group has been showing up on Saturday mornings for about two months.
"We've always offered to listen," Klass says, "but they don't want to talk."
OâNeal prefers what heâs doing not be called a protest. âThe Bible doesnât say go forth and protest,â OâNeal says.
On July 21, WW filmed members of the Beaverton church holding signs outside Lovejoy Surgicenter and O'Neal speaking outside the clinic's entrance. His camera was on a tripod to capture him giving a sermon on the sidewalk.
WW also watched O'Neal confront a patient outside the clinic. The woman told O'Neal she was a student and couldn't afford to raise a child. O'Neal spoke to her and followed her all the way to the clinic's door.
O'Neal says he is the one who has been the target of intimidation by the clinic's staff. He says women who work there have tried to bully him and his church members into leaving by speaking into the camera and holding signs of their own.
"It's their intention to drive away those who are exercising free speech," O'Neal says.
The videos on the church's website include eight demonstrations at Lovejoy Surgicenter.
None of the videos shows Lovejoy's patients entering or exiting the clinic. But one shows a clinic employee holding a sign that reads "Beaverton Grace Bible Church Intimidates Women."
"That's true," O'Neal responds in the video. "If women want to murder children, if they want to murder my son, my daughter, I would want them intimidated that they would not do that.â