Recent raids on pro-life families with young children have left attorneys and lawmakers questioning the Biden administration’s legal tactics.Legal Experts Call Out Biden DOJ’s Aggressive Targeting of Pro-Life Demonstrators Following at-Home Raids| National Catholic Register
WASHINGTON — Two pro-life fathers were recently arrested at their homes by FBI agents with guns drawn in front of their wives and children. One had an alleged altercation last year with an abortion facility escort he said was harassing his young son. The other father allegedly assisted a group of pro-lifers praying and singing hymns outside an abortion business more than a year ago.
Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel at the Thomas More Society, told the Register that these incidents “point to a weaponized Department of Justice that is seeking to intimidate pro-life people and people of faith in this country,” and they “should outrage every American, no matter where they stand on abortion.”
The charges against Mark Houck, a 48-year-old Catholic father of seven, stem from an incident that took place on Oct. 13, 2021, in which a 72-year-old facility escort, Bruce Love, approached Houck and his son, who were peacefully praying about 50 feet from the center, Breen said. According to Breen, the escort made “crude references, sexual and otherwise,” to Houck’s 12-year-old son. An altercation ensued in which Houck allegedly shoved Love.
Breen said the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the incident, so Love filed a private criminal complaint, which was dismissed when Love repeatedly failed to show up in court. However, Houck was informed weeks later that federal prosecutors were investigating and that the U.S. Attorney’s Office wanted to speak to his attorney.
A Thomas More Society attorney advised the U.S. Attorney’s Office in a June email, Breen said, that, based on relevant case law in the same district, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act that Houck was facing charges under doesn’t apply to one-off altercations unrelated to abortion access. The attorneys also agreed to bring Houck in “wherever they want him to be brought in and whatever date and time is appropriate.”
Breen said they received no reply until they were notified that Houck had been taken into custody on Sept. 23. He said the agents had “long guns pointed at Mark and his family, they came and pounded on his door,” and one gunman “was pointing a gun inside the house.” Added Breen, “His wife is there, looking on, along with his seven children at the top of the staircase. She’s holding them back.”
Houck’s wife, Ryan-Marie Houck, demanded to see a warrant, which the agents initially refused to provide, but did provide one to her. “A SWAT team of about 25 came to my house with about 15 vehicles and started pounding on our door,” she told Catholic News Agency following the incident.
The FBI’s Philadelphia office challenged her account, telling Catholic News Agency in a statement that “no SWAT Team or SWAT operators were involved. FBI agents knocked on Mr. Houck’s front door, identified themselves as FBI agents, and asked him to exit the residence. He did so and was taken into custody without incident pursuant to an indictment.”
However, an FBI spokesman declined to answer Catholic News Agency’s questions about the number of law enforcement personnel at the scene and whether any drew their weapons and pointed them at the family.
DOJ Media Spin
“We found out on the day of the arrest that the Department of Justice was running the media operation out of Washington, D.C., not out of the local U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Breen said, “and we learned that a senior trial attorney from the Department of Justice had actually been running point on this case from the beginning.”
In its press release regarding the arrest, the DOJ stated that there were “two separate incidents” involving Houck and Bruce Love (referred to as B.L.); “in the first incident, B.L. was attempting to escort two patients exiting the clinic, when the defendant forcefully shoved B.L. to the ground. In the second incident, the defendant verbally confronted B.L. and forcefully shoved B.L. to the ground in front of the Planned Parenthood center, causing injuries to B.L. that required medical attention.”
Breen said that the first allegation appears to be fabricated and without evidence. He pointed out that in Love’s private criminal complaint, he only alleged one incident of physical contact, not two.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, along with 10 of his colleagues in the Senate, wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Sept. 28 with a series of questions, including, “In light of Mr. Houck’s alleged cooperation with federal authorities, what factors led to the Justice Department and FBI executing an arrest warrant against him instead of using less aggressive tactics, including a summons to appear?”
The U.S. senators wrote that the “extraordinary fact pattern” in Houck’s arrest “requires additional information from the Justice Department and the FBI relating to why Mr. Houck was not allowed to self-report for his arrest and arraignment and whether political considerations were made to approve and execute the search warrant.”
A Second FBI Raid
Another home arrest occurred just weeks after Houck’s, at the home of pro-life leader Paul Vaughn, a father of 11, who recorded a video of fellow pro-life advocates singing and praying outside a Tennessee abortion facility in March 2021.
According to the Thomas More Society, he “was never arrested by the local police” and “was recording the protest and serving as a liaison between life advocates and the police to ensure the safety of all involved.”
Others involved in the protest were arrested for blocking the doors to the abortion facility; they were arrested at the time of the blockade. Yet Vaughn had FBI agents appear at his house more than a year later to arrest him as he was preparing to take his children to school.
“His children were outside,” Breen said. “He sees a federal agent with a long gun holding his children back, preventing them from moving, and then he is taken into custody.”
He also referenced a video, taken by Vaughn’s wife, showing the agents refusing to “explain what happened and why they had to come out with guns against him.”
“This idea, that the Department of Justice is now going to come out with big guns against peaceful, pro-life people, is becoming a pattern,” he said. “There are children involved, and they’re affecting unnecessary arrests with overwhelming force.”
He said, in the Vaughn case, “they didn’t just charge him with a FACE violation; they are charging them [the group of pro-lifers] with a violation of the Ku Klux Klan Act, the conspiracy to violate civil rights. A first violation of the FACE Act is supposed to carry a six-month maximum sentence. It’s a misdemeanor at the federal level.” By contrast, the KKK Act “has a 10-year penalty in the federal penitentiary. They’re at risk to go to federal prison longer than many violent criminals, merely for coming together and sitting and singing hymns and prayers in front of an abortion clinic door.”
Breen added that, subsequent to Roe v. Wade being overturned in June, abortion is not legal in Tennessee anymore, so “why would you even charge these people when that abortion clinic isn’t even doing abortions anymore?”
History of FACE
Both men are facing charges under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act of 1994, a law prohibiting “by force, by threat of force, or by physical obstruction” attempts to “injure, intimidate or interfere with any person because that person is “obtaining or providing reproductive health services.” It also prohibits force and threats against “places of worship.”
Catherine Short, chief legal officer at the Life Legal Defense Foundation, told the Register that the FACE Act was passed in the early days of the Clinton administration to address the pro-life organization Operation Rescue by enacting “some really stiff federal penalties on clinic blockades that were organized and massive and did tend to go across state lines in a lot of smaller states.”
However, Short said that, by the time the act was signed in 1994, most organized blockades were discontinued.
She said what made the measure first of its kind was that “a peaceful blockade could bring in federal felony charges.” She said the measure has been used “primarily against violence or threats of violence,” even though “when you rise to the level of violence and threats of violence, the local authorities are perfectly willing to act in that situation,” using local criminal-assault laws.
Breen pointed out that the Obama administration targeted peaceful pro-life sidewalk counselors under the FACE Act, “filing civil injunction lawsuits against peaceful sidewalk counselors and prayer-vigil participants,” because they reasoned that “handing out literature and talking to people” meant obstructing “other people’s access to the abortion clinics.”
The Obama administration’s reasoning was rejected by federal judges, including in a case Breen led in Colorado, where pro-lifer Ken Scott faced a $10,000 fine and 10 charges under FACE. The judge ruled in 2012 that the brief discussions Scott had with people handing them leaflets were not “unreasonable delays.”
In another case that took place in Florida, a federal judge ordered the Obama DOJ to pay $120,000 to pro-life sidewalk counselor Mary Susan Pine, who had FACE charges brought against her after counseling someone through their car window. No proof was provided in that case that Pine had obstructed anyone’s access to the business.
Ultimately, Breen said, the administration backed down, and “we really didn’t have much problem under the FACE Act with the Obama administration in their second term.” He is hopeful that similar legal victories will occur for the pro-lifers currently facing charges.
Katie Glenn, state policy director at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told the Register that the FACE Act “has a corollary piece that would protect churches and pregnancy centers from the violence they’ve been facing.”
She said, “We see that Merrick Garland and the Justice Department are not interested in enforcing the law in that way, even though we know dozens of churches and pregnancy centers have been vandalized and attacked in the last few months, so this is certainly being applied very selectively by the Biden administration to go after people that they perceive as going against their agenda.”
Short said it is striking that the Biden administration hasn’t appeared to make a single arrest related to the vandalism and arson attacks that have occurred at pro-life facilities since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned Roe, noting that “arson in general has a very low level for the federal government to get involved.” She pointed out that the activist group Jane’s Revenge has claimed credit for some of these attacks.
U.S. Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Mike Johnson, R-La., recently announced that they were launching a congressional inquiry into the Justice Department’s enforcement of the FACE Act.
In a letter to Jacqueline Romero, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, they wrote that “the Department [of Justice] has almost exclusively enforced the FACE Act to protect pro-abortion activists while failing to prosecute harassment and intimidation of pro-life supporters.” They noted that FACE protects “pro-life pregnancy counseling services and any other pregnancy support facility providing reproductive health care.”
The congressmen cited examples, including the fact that, “since the leak of the draft Dobbs opinion, Jane’s Revenge, a radical anti-life group, ‘has claimed responsibility for at least 18 arson and vandalism attacks’ on pro-life clinics and organizations. While the FBI says that it is investigating a ‘series of attacks and threats targeting pregnancy resource centers, faith-based organizations, and reproductive health clinics,’ to our knowledge, the Department and FBI have not executed any SWAT team dawn raids to make arrests of anti-life activists.”
Glenn said that “the Biden administration is sending a message” with their enforcement of FACE and the raids at family homes. “When you arrest people in that way, they are definitely doing that intentionally, and it’s because they want people to be afraid to sidewalk counsel.”