Like many municipalities, the City of New Orleans hands out ceremonial proclamations and letters of welcome to citizens and visitors. Getting an official welcome to town is reserved for groups and conventions, but anyone can apply for a ceremonial proclamation, as long as the reason fits in one of the city's six categories: organizational honors; church and pastoral anniversaries; retirements; heroic deeds; a 100th birthday; or "outstanding community service by an individual, group or organization."
The anti-abortion group Operation Save America (OSA), which enjoys federal nonprofit status, apparently applied for an official city proclamation for its recent national event in New Orleans, which was held July 19-26. Like many other groups, OSA received the requested proclamation, which commended the group for its "outstanding service to the City of New Orleans." It carried the signature of Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
A simple web search might have alerted the mayor's office that issuing the proclamation was not a good idea. Operation Save America is the 21st century name of Operation Rescue, a group founded in the 1980s and well-known for its aggressive tactics against abortion clinics and providers, as well as its thirst for publicity and confrontation. Moreover, there was ample evidence online that OSA wasn't coming to town for jazz and beignets. "The devil has been partying in New Orleans for quite a while now, and God's church is coming to the party," OSA boasted on its website. "I wonder how the gates of hell will fare when the church of Jesus Christ shows up at the doorstep?"
The group began its Sunday in New Orleans by going Uptown to the First Unitarian Universalist Church, where OSA claims to have "presented the truth of the Gospel in this synagogue of Satan." Members of OSA protested and disrupted proceedings inside the church during the Unitarian Universalists' service, which particularly upset the New Orleans church because the first outburst took place during a moment of silence for a recently deceased parishioner. "It was a traumatic experience for all who were there," wrote the church's Bill McDade. "Our church leadership and members acted with great strength, love and support of each other as they peacefully gathered and escorted the disruptive group from the sanctuary."
Not surprisingly, OSA members also made themselves known at the site of the soon-to-be-built Planned Parenthood clinic on South Claiborne Avenue — where many have come to protest and pray since construction of the clinic was announced. Others erected huge signs on South Carrollton Avenue at the entrance to the Fontainebleau neighborhood, and still more picketed homes of what they said were clinic workers as part of "public awareness campaigns." Some OSA members held a public funeral in Jackson Square for what they claimed was an aborted fetus.
None of these are new tactics for OSA. The group's leader, the Rev. Flip Benham, was arrested in 2010 for protesting inside a church in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2011, a jury convicted him of stalking after he handed out "WANTED" posters depicting the face of a Charlotte doctor.
New Orleans is a famously tolerant city, and proclamations are an appropriate way to welcome all kinds of groups — as long as the visitors understand that tolerance is a two-way street, one that is paved with mutual respect. We recognize and support everyone's First Amendment rights, but a quick check of OSA's history would have shown that it is not a tolerant or respectful organization. The group specifically came to New Orleans to protest in offensive ways — and, in the process, it consumed a lot of New Orleans Police Department time and effort.
After our reporting partner Robert Morris first reported news of the proclamation on his website, UptownMessenger.com, people reacted with outrage on social media. A petition demanding the city rescind the proclamation reached 1,000 signatories (many from the Unitarian Universalist church) within 24 hours. Soon after, the Landrieu administration issued a statement, which said in part, "It is customary for the City to provide standard proclamations to visiting groups that request them through the City's website. To be clear, the City does not endorse extreme or violent tactics, and this proclamation was issued in error. Any group can exercise their constitutional rights, but all of us have a responsibility to do so in a respectful manner."
That was not the case with OSA, and it would have been easy to see this controversy coming. Going forward, we hope City Hall will check the background of any group seeking an official welcome.