Judge acquits anti-abortion protesters in novel ruling
New York, NY — In a novel ruling that has startled both sides in the abortion debate, a federal judge has decided that two anti-abortion protesters committed no crime when they blocked access to a Westchester County clinic because they were motivated by "conscience-driven religious belief."
The protesters, a retired Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop and a Franciscan friar, could have been found in criminal contempt of an order by the judge, John Sprizzo of U.S. District Court in Manhattan. He had told them to abide by a 1994 federal law that protects the entries and exits of clinics.
But the judge, invoking a 1970 Supreme Court decision in favor of a Vietnam War conscientious objector, said that the men had been acting on "sincere, genuine, objectively based" religious convictions.
And since he was sitting as jury as well as judge in the October bench trial, he acquitted Bishop George E. Lynch and Brother Christopher Moscinski under a rarely exercised privilege that permits jurors to vote in defiance of a law if they believe it is wrong.
The judge's decision, said abortion opponents, has given fresh impetus to their movement. "He surprised us all," said A. Lawrence Washburn Jr., a stunned but delighted lawyer for the defendants, who said that the judge had relied on original research for his ruling, issued last Monday. "Judge Sprizzo has pointed the way."
Arthur Gallagher, one of the protesters celebrating the ruling, said, "The decision was a victory for all of us, and a victory for free speech."
Abortion-rights supporters reacted with alarm. "It's an off-the-wall, scary decision," said Donna Lieberman, director of the Reproductive Rights Project of the New York Civil Liberties Union.