"I'm Not Free From This Guy"

A pastor protesting abortions at Lovejoy Surgicenter has had trouble with his own flock.

Last Sunday, pastor Chuck O'Neal read the parable of the sower from the Gospel of Mark to his congregation at Beaverton Grace Bible Church. It's the story of a man who scatters seeds in all kinds of terrain in hopes they will sprout.

O'Neal told his congregants the seed he seeks to sow is the word of God.

"Jesus was a street preacher," he says. "He was a public proclaimer of the gospel."

O'Neal himself has been taking his message into harsh terrain lately. He's the preacher who has amped up protests and confrontation outside Northwest Portland's Lovejoy Surgicenter, Oregon's leading provider of abortions.

O'Neal is the latest in a long line of activists who have drawn attention to Lovejoy Surgicenter—and sought publicity—in the local debate over abortion rights. 

Since April, O'Neal and volunteers have been videotaping and confronting patients and staff outside the clinic. His actions have set off a state civil rights inquiry, which is examining whether his protests are intimidating employees and women seeking medical services at Lovejoy Surgicenter.

O'Neal says the inquiry, by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, is threatening his right to free speech.

But records and interviews show O'Neal has been less than tolerant of free speech when his own parishioners criticized his leadership.

Last year, O'Neal and Beaverton Grace sued five former church members for defamation when they posted unflattering comments about him on a blog and a Google review of Beaverton Grace.

The church organization under which he served, the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, revoked his credentials in 2012, soon after the lawsuit was tossed out. (O'Neal disputes this and claims he quit the fellowship.)

O'Neal, 41, agreed to talk to WW this week at Beaverton Grace, but only if another person sat in on the conversation. (O'Neal says he will not sit alone with a woman other than his wife.)

He says he grew up in a military family and met his wife, Tonya, while in middle school in Iowa. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1990, and during basic training, he says, he went through a religious conversion after reading the New Testament in a Gideon Bible.

After six years in the Marines, he attended Multnomah Bible College before earning a degree in psychology from Corban University, a Baptist college in Salem. In 1999, he was hired as a pastor at Beaverton Grace.

O'Neal has preached at a Portland Cinco de Mayo celebration and in front of Voodoo Doughnut.

His church is far more subdued than its pastor. Its drab gray building, located on Northwest 180th Avenue, is tucked into a quiet residential area north of Walker Road. There's no sign with Bible verses or hours of service—or even noting the name Beaverton Grace.

Only a white cross on the south side of the building marks it as a church at all.

O'Neal first surfaced publicly as a controversial figure following a 2008 child-welfare investigation by the Oregon Department of Human Services. State officials decline to discuss the case, but O'Neal says he was investigated to determine whether he had allowed sexual abuse and the threat of harm to occur at his church.

O'Neal says it was alleged he had allowed a teenager suspected of sexual abuse to have contact with other children. He says the allegations were untrue, and O'Neal provided WW with documents he says show the state concluded the charges were unfounded. He says the allegations were retaliation against him for firing a church employee.

But many of O'Neal's parishioners were clearly becoming unhappy with him.

One disgruntled church member was Julie Anne Smith, who now lives in Tri-Cities, Wash. Smith tells WW she left the church about five years ago. A year after she left, she went online to leave a Google review of her experience. Smith says the review was removed at least twice.

"I realized he was taking away my voice," Smith says. "I saw that I wasn't getting anywhere on Google and I wanted my voice to get out there."

She created a blog called Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors, where she posted criticisms of O'Neal and the church.

In 2011 and 2012, Smith published on her blog and other websites critiques of the church leadership and barbs aimed at O'Neal. She wrote of "control tactics" and "narcissism in the pulpit" and referred to the church as a "cult." She aired allegations that it had turned a "blind eye" to "known sex offenders" by giving them access to children.

"Something creepy about this church," she wrote in December 2011.

Others posted their own criticisms, and in February 2012, O'Neal and Beaverton Grace filed a defamation suit against Smith and four other ex-members.

"I was floored," Smith says.

O'Neal says the criticisms by former church members that led to his legal action do not compare to his own exercise of the First Amendment outside the Lovejoy Surgicenter.

"This kind of thing isn't free speech," O'Neal says. "Destroying people with abuse and lies is not free speech."

A Washington County circuit judge threw out the lawsuit after six months, ruling that the ex-members' comments were protected speech. The judge ordered Beaverton Grace Bible Church to pay the legal fees of the defendants. (The costs for two defendants alone were $16,750.)

O'Neal says his dispute with ex-members whom he sued is not over. His wife carries printed cards with her side of the story, and he says she has been distributing them in Beaverton neighborhoods and at another church.

Smith says she does not see an end in sight.

"I'm not free from this guy," she says.

Emily Sires, another ex-member of Beaverton Grace, says the cards have shown up under the windshield wipers of cars.

Sires says she and her husband, Jeff, quit the church in 2011. Sires says Tonya O'Neal confronted her and her husband in June of this year in a parking lot outside a Cold Stone Creamery in Hillsboro, after they had left the ice-cream shop.

"She followed us out and said, 'How dare you show your face?'" Sires says.

When Tonya O'Neal said cruel things about Sires' parents, Sires says she raised her voice in return. She and her husband then walked away, while O'Neal continued to yell at them across the parking lot.

"Chuck and Tonya O'Neal are bullies," Sires later wrote on her Facebook page.

Greg Howell is pastor of the Community Grace Brethren Church in Goldendale, Wash. He is also chairman of a regional ethics committee for the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches.

Howell tells WW that O'Neal's credentials were revoked last August. He would not discuss why. O'Neal can still be considered a pastor, Howell says. If O'Neal attempts to move to another church in the fellowship, however, Howell says he has a "kind of a black mark on him."

O'Neal says his credentials were not revoked but that he renounced his relationship with the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches in a 2008 letter.

"I didn't see it nor did anyone in [the fellowship]," Howell says of the letter.

O'Neal says the controversies have hurt his church. Five years ago, he had  about 130 parishioners, he says. Today, there are about 60.

And he says the past battles have helped prepare him if he must confront the state over his protests at Lovejoy Surgicenter.

“The fact that we’ve endured this lends some strength,” O’Neal says. “So I guess that’s a weird blessing, if you will.” 

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW’s journalism through our Give!Guide Fundraising page.