SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — An anti-abortion group seeking state abortion bans is planning to hold an event in South Dakota later this month, encouraged by Gov. Kristi Noem's relatively hands-off approach to pandemic restrictions that bucked some federal recommendations.
Dallas-based Operation Save America is planning to hold an "Operation Abolish Abortion" event in Sioux Falls, based out of a Baptist church in Montrose, S.D., from Oct. 21 to 24.
The event will include protests at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Sioux Falls, the only place to get an abortion in the state, as well as a high school and college campus, according to the Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas, national director for Operation Save America.
Thomas said the group decided on a South Dakota event after watching Noem and the state Legislature resist calls for mandates and lockdowns meant to limit the spread of COVID-19, including calls from some federal health officials for more restrictive action, including promotion of mask-wearing.
The group says it has purchased a $1,600 advertisement in the Pierre Capital Journal newspaper on Oct. 22 to publish an open letter to officials praising Noem and legislators for their approach.
"South Dakota has led the way in securing the liberty of its citizens during this politically charged pandemic," the group's letter begins, according to its post. "The governor and the legislators took a principled stand against the overreach of the federal government to safeguard freedom."
Thomas said his group is seeking for Noem and other leaders to now take a go-it-alone approach to ban abortion.
"We just want to encourage her and the Legislature to be consistent," he said. "We did this to protect the life and liberty and the freedom of the citizens under your jurisdiction in South Dakota. Now how about doing this for the pre-born?"
Noem spokesman Ian Fury Thursday, Oct. 8, said the governor wasn't familiar with the group and hadn't been in contact with them.
"She stands for the right to life of every human being, born and unborn, and respects everyone’s First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech and assembly," Fury wrote.
Operation Save America will also seek to meet with local officials to encourage them to "interpose" against federal law and Supreme Court decisions legalizing abortion and gay marriage, based on a belief held by the group known as the Lesser Magistrate Doctrine, said Thomas.
Under the doctrine, state and local officials have the right and responsibility to step in and essentially ignore a federal law or Supreme Court decision considered unjust or immoral.
A spokeswoman for Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken on Thursday said the group has not contacted the mayor's office
Protests detailed for Planned Parenthood
Operation Save America is the successor to Operation Rescue, a group that made a name for itself in the late '80s and early '90s under activist leader Randall Terry when its members conducted sit-ins to physically block access to clinics.
(Another group based in Kansas named Operation Rescue considers itself the true successor to the original group.)
Thomas said direct action, such as blocking clinic access, is something his group does, calling it "still a tool in the toolbox."
Thomas said his group's plans for the Planned Parenthood protest in Sioux Falls include prayers, worship, preaching and sidewalk counselors to talk to those seeking to visit the clinic, and wouldn't include all attendees.
Thomas said he's not sure how many people will attend, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization booked 30 rooms in a Sioux Falls hotel, with an additional 10 rooms in another hotel to accommodate overflow attendees, according to a post on the group's Facebook page. The event's host church is Ramsey Baptist Church in Montrose, according to the group.
The Sioux Falls Police Department Friday said the group hasn't requested or received a permit, which is required for any assembly involving 25 people or more.
Planned Parenthood said it was preparing for the group's arrival and would reach out to authorities if needed.
"We will be prepared to care for our patients and help them navigate the event so they can get the health care that they need and that they rely on us to provide," Planned Parenthood said in a statement. "We will contact the authorities if the rights of our patients or staff are threatened or violated."
Fugleberg can be followed on Twitter at @jayfug and reached at email@example.com or 605-777-3357.