City Council Approves Compromise Allowing Prayer Vigil

Apr 11, 2014

Plattsburgh City Hall
Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley

City councilors in Plattsburgh reversed themselves this week and approved a compromise that will allow a prayer vigil in front of Planned Parenthood on Good Friday.

Apostles for Life had requested permission from the city of Plattsburgh to use three parking spaces directly in front of Planned Parenthood of the North Country for its annual Good Friday prayer vigil.   When the resolution came before city councilors on March 13th, concerns were raised about free speech, loss of public parking and whether it would be a religious service or a protest. Despite having approved it for years, the council rejected the request. But the issue did not fade, and this week, Ward One Democrat Rachelle Armstrong, who opposed the original resolution, offered a compromise.  “The patrons of Planned Parenthood have never really been considered when these kinds of situations have come up for approval. And though this particular one doesn’t have vociferous protesters, the idea that you must walk in front of people who are protesting your actions does not seem as though the patrons’ rights were being respected. Nobody denies that Apostles for Life have a right to free speech. And that’s how the compromise was organized.”

Rather than allowing Apostles for Life to gather in parking spaces directly in front of Planned Parenthood, the group must use spaces across the street. Ward Four Democrat Paul O’Connell supported the original resolution.  “I just can’t understand why it would make a difference if you move it from one side of the street to the other. If you’ve had an event for fifteen or twenty years and there’s never been a problem, you’ve never had any police come and there’s never been any bad press, why would you need to change it now? Why would you want to adjust it?”

During the initial vote, Mayor James Calnon, an Independent, warned councilors that if the vote tied, he would support the group’s ability to hold its vigil as requested.  “The first time that I was faced with this I was really hung up on whether this was a religious activity, which we can’t support, or a piece of free speech, which we must support. The reason you have a prayer service in front of Planned Parenthood is that it’s essentially a protest. And so I felt it was clearly a free speech issue. But for five of the six people around the table this is the first time they’ve ever had to deal with it. And so I’m not sure that they had the same comfort level with it that councils in the last couple years have had.”

Apostles for Life began its Good Friday Stations of the Cross prayer vigil in front of Planned Parenthood in Plattsburgh about nine years ago, according to Presiding Officer Dr. John Middleton. He says the compromise sounds OK, but there is some confusion over liability insurance. Nevertheless, he says the group will gather.  “We have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. We will meet and gather in the designated parking places. But we’ll probably use the public spaces between the sidewalk and the curb for putting our crosses up and that sort of thing.”

Middleton finds it curious that their request to use parking spaces was denied at the same time the city council allowed several restaurants and cafes to block off parking spaces during the summer for commercial purposes.  “One gets the idea that this is not really anything except, I feel this way, a slap at pro-life people. And perhaps even Christians who want to pray a certain way.”

Apostles for Life says attendance for the Good Friday prayer vigil averages 100 to 200 people.