OTTAWA (CCN) —The Catholic Civil Rights League has joined a constitutional challenge by Father Tony Van Hee, SJ, of Ontario’s controversial abortion bubble zone law.
In a legal proceeding filed with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice May 27, the league and the Jesuit priest asked for an order striking down sections of the 2017 Safe Access to Abortion Services Act, arguing they violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The applicants are also seeking a declaration the act is outside the authority of the province because criminal matters are federal jurisdiction.
Father Van Hee, 83, was charged in October 2018 with intimidating or attempting to intimidate people within the bubble zone around the Morgentaler abortion facility in Ottawa. He had been silently standing and sitting on a portable stool across the street wearing a sandwich board that said on the front, “The Primacy of Free Speech/Cornerstone of Western Civilization” and on the back, “Without Free Speech The State Is A Corpse.”
The charge of intimidation was later dropped and replaced with two new charges of violating the zone to “inform or attempt to inform a person concerning issues related to abortion services” and to “perform or attempt to perform an act of disapproval” about abortion.
The case has been set over to July 2020 to allow time for the anticipated legal challenge. A plea of not guilty was entered on Father Van Hee’s behalf.
Albertos Polizogopoulos, the priest’s legal counsel, said the fact the Catholic Civil Rights League has joined the legal challenge “shows that it doesn’t affect one person; it affects the whole community, in this case the Catholic community.” He said it’s also a political and religious issue for people of other faiths.
Polizogopoulos said the law is “broader than it needs to be” and goes beyond banning harassment or physical assault. “It criminalizes a protest that has nothing to do with abortion, and Father Van Hee’s case is an example of that.”
Phil Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League and a constitutional lawyer, pointed out Father Van Hee was standing up for free speech yet was charged “with something completely different.”
“Father Van Hee engaged in silent witness on freedom of speech or expression and quiet prayer within an access zone as defined by the Bubble Zone Legislation,” the court filing said. “During the three and a half days he protested, Father Van Hee never spoke to or engaged with anyone and never mentioned or referred to abortion services or related issues. He did not provide information related to abortion or perform or attempt to perform an act of disapproval concerning abortion.”
The court application said not the legislation is “so overbroad that Father Van Hee and the League are unable to protest the Bubble Zone Legislation itself.”
The priest could face a fine of $5,000 and six months in jail if convicted.
He continues to maintain a prayer vigil, wearing the same sandwich board, several days a week at the edge of the bubble zone.
Meanwhile, the priest is getting support from the Christian Heritage Party in the Hamilton Mountain riding, where it has declared May “Free Speech Matters Month” in Hamilton and purchased bus shelter advertising featuring a picture of Father Van Hee wearing his sandwich board. The CHP is also distributing flyers about the case.
The CHP won a 2018 case in which three judges decided against the City of Hamilton’s removal of a bus shelter ad campaign.
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