By Julie Asher
(OSV News) — A Catholic pro-life advocate is on trial for allegedly violating a federal law that protects access to abortion clinics, and the lead lawyer defending him said the charges against his client are being pursued “solely to intimidate people of faith and pro-life Americans.”
Mark Houck, known for his sidewalk counseling outside a Philadelphia abortion facility, is being tried in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on two charges under the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act, for allegedly assaulting an abortion clinic volunteer in October 2021.
The 1994 law prohibits intentional property damage of a facility that provides “reproductive health services,” including those related to abortion, and prohibits using “force or threat of force or … physical obstruction” to “injure, intimidate or interfere with” someone entering an abortion clinic.
“The Biden administration has filed two brazenly defective and discriminatory charges” against Houck, “and both should be dismissed,” said Peter Breen, executive vice president and head of litigation at the Thomas More Society, a not-for-profit, public interest law firm based in Chicago.
Houck is co-founder and president of The King’s Men, a lay apostolate for men principally based in the U.S. He is being represented by Breen before District Judge Gerald J. Pappert.
The trial began the morning of Jan. 24 with jury selection. The swearing-in of jurors took place early Jan. 25, with the trial proceedings going into the afternoon. Pappert said he expected the testimony — and possibly the closing arguments as well — to be finished by the end of the day Jan. 26.
The charges against Houck stem from two separate incidents Oct. 13, 2021, where Houck allegedly assaulted the victim, identified in the indictment as “B.L.,” because B.L. was a volunteer escort at the reproductive health care clinic.
If convicted of the offenses, Houck faces up to a maximum of 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release and fines of up to $350,000.
“Both counts allege that Mark Houck interfered with a so-called volunteer abortion patient escort, when in reality, Houck had a one-off altercation with a man who harassed Houck’s minor son, approximately 100 feet from the abortion business and across the street,” Breen said in a statement.
In a pretrial hearing Jan. 17, Breen also presented the court with evidence he said shows the FACE Act “was never intended to cover disputes between advocates on the public sidewalks outside of our nation’s abortion clinics.”
Breen entered into evidence the transcript of what he described as a “key exchange” between Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn., over a bipartisan amendment they negotiated “to strip clinic escorts of the right to bring lawsuits under the FACE Act.”
In the May 1994 transcript as documented in the Congressional Record, Durenberger and Kennedy agreed that the definition of the “aggrieved person” protected by the law includes “all patients, providers and facilities that provide reproductive health services,” and excludes those who escort women seeking an abortion or other services at these clinics.
“Demonstrators, clinic defenders, escorts and other persons not involved in obtaining or providing services in the facility may not bring such a cause of action,” said Kennedy.
“This new evidence shows clearly that Congress intended to limit the FACE Act to patients and staff working in the clinic, and not to take sides between pro-life and pro-choice counselors and escorts on the sidewalk,” Breen said in a statement.
“The Biden Department of Justice’s prosecution of Mark Houck is pure harassment, meant solely to intimidate our nation’s pro-life sidewalk counselors who provide vital resources to help pregnant women at risk for abortion,” he added.
Houck’s arrest related to his sidewalk counseling Oct. 13 outside Philadelphia’s Planned Parenthood-Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center. According to a fundraising page for the Houck family, a volunteer “patient escort” began harassing Mark Houck’s son who was with Mark praying. Houck and his son then “walked down the street away from the entrance to the building.” However, the “escort followed them, and when he continued yelling at Mark’s son, Mark pushed him away.”
Philadelphia police records show officers responded to a report of assault at the Planned Parenthood facility.
The clinic volunteer, Bruce Love, was “pushed to the ground … causing a scrape to his right arm,” the police report said. News reports said later that police eventually decided there was a “lack of evidence” that an assault took place “and declined to pursue the issue any further.”
Love filed a criminal complaint against Mark Houck last year, but according to various reports, the case was dismissed because Love himself never showed up.
Early in the morning Sept. 23, 2022, Houck was arrested at his home in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for the alleged assault on the abortion clinic volunteer. He was indicted later that day on two charges under the FACE Act.
The arrest made headlines after Ryan-Marie Houck, Mark Houck’s wife, told reporters that 25 to 30 armed FBI agents, who she said included SWAT members, entered the family’s home at 7:05 a.m. pointing rifles at her and her husband as the couple’s seven children began screaming. They then arrested her husband, she said.
The FBI’s Philadelphia office issued a statement shortly after the arrest saying that claims about SWAT team members being involved in the arrest were inaccurate. “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,” it read.
“This is a great man facing a trumped-up and false charge that, if convicted, could land him in prison for eleven years. That is totally unacceptable,” Tom Stevens, president and CEO of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, said in a Jan. 24 text message to OSV News. “The Pro-Life Union stands behind Mark and his family and we hope to see quick and reasonable justice here. We will not be bullied by these scare tactics.”
Ashley Garecht, vice chair of the Pro-Life Union, said in a phone interview that there has been an “egregious over-prosecution” of Houck.
“We know Mark; we’ve been praying at gatherings at that Planned Parenthood for 20 years,” she told OSV News. “He knows the rules inside and out. He’s somebody we point to when we’re training new (sidewalk) counselors, because he does it so well; he handles this incredibly intense space so well.”
Julie Asher is senior editor for OSV News. Contributing to this story was Gina Christian in Philadelphia.
For updates on this OSV News story, see your local Catholic news source.