On Feb. 15, 2013, abortion opponent Mark Holick turned up at the Wichita, Kan., house of Julie Burkhart, CEO of Trust Women, with a sign that read “Where’s your church?”—a dog whistle referencing the murder of Burkhart’s mentor, Dr. George Tiller, inside his church.
Holick’s intention was clear: to intimidate Burkhart out of opening a clinic in the same building where Tiller had provided abortions for 34 years.
Holick had been harassing Burkhart since November 2012. Fearing for her safety, Burkhart petitioned the court for a protection-from-stalking order against Holick, who, she noted in a press release at the time, exhibited “the same virulent… rhetoric regarding abortion, which ultimately led to the assassination of Dr. George R. Tiller.”
History repeating itself was not just an abstract fear for Burkhart. In a video posted on YouTube by David Leach of Army of God, Scott Roeder, Tiller’s murderer, threatened that for “Julie ‘Darkheart’ … to walk in there and reopen a clinic, a murder mill where a man [Tiller] was stopped … Maybe she’ll be number nine”—in other words, the ninth U.S. abortion provider to be murdered by extremists. When Burkhart’s protective order expired in 2015, Holick filed a lawsuit against Burkhart claiming defamation, malicious prosecution and abuse of process.
He demanded more than $1 million in damages. Holick was represented by Wichita attorney Don McKinney, who is vehemently opposed to abortions and who pursued Tiller through the courts while serving as special prosecutor under former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline in 2006.
The Thomas More Society, a national nonprofit law firm, provided Holick with additional legal aid. The firm has aggressively challenged the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, including representing the American Coalition of Life Activists, whose “WANTED” posters targeting doctors who provide abortion services were declared “a true threat” in 2002 in violation of FACE. The firm has also served as counsel for wellknown extremists like Troy Newman of Operation Rescue and David Daleidan of the so-called Center for Medical Progress. In November, the latter was found guilty by a federal jury in San Francisco of violating multiple state and federal laws for his role in creating false videos in a smear campaign against Planned Parenthood.
This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2020 issue of Ms.
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Holick has also filed lawsuits against cities and police officers and has received large monetary settlements. He was given a $225,000 settlement in a lawsuit against Jackson, Wyo., in which he alleged that his First and 14th amendment (due process) rights were broken when he was arrested for allegedly violating a temporary restraining order prohibiting anti-abortion protestors from assembling in the town square without a permit; the order also prohibited the display of graphic dead fetus posters. Small municipalities like Jackson often settle these cases rather than go to trial.
“Extremists are using the First Amendment to sue providers, cities and police departments to win financial settlements, knowing that small municipalities will fear multiyear, costly legal wrangling similar to that which Julie endured,” says duVergne Gaines, director of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project, who works closely with Burkhart and her clinic. “But providers will not be intimidated out of helping women, and a growing network of pro bono abortion-rights attorneys is ready to defend them against all harassment.”
In October, a jury found in favor of Burkhart. John Hall, coleader of Burkhart’s pro bono legal team, said in a statement, “We showed those who might use the courts as another tool of harassment that people like Julie will have some of the country’s top lawyers watching their backs.”
Burkhart says she was proud to have exposed the strategy of the antiabortion opponent for what it was: “an indefensible effort to use attacks on me to prevent women from getting the care our Constitution guarantees.”