WASHINGTON -- Representatives of three anti-abortion groups met with a top Justice Department official Tuesday to decry the slayings of abortion clinic doctors.
The meeting marked the first time that members of Operation Rescue, one of three anti-abortion groups present, have met with an official in any presidential Administration, said Justice Department spokesman, John Russell. Operation Rescue is one of the nation's most militant anti-abortion groups.
The 45-minute session with Assistant Atty. Gen. Jo Ann Harris who heads the criminal division of the Justice Department, came less than two weeks after Paul Hill, 40, was found guilty of the July 29 killing of an abortion clinic doctor and his volunteer escort in Pensacola Florida was convicted of violating the Freedom Of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a federal statute prohibiting anyone from harming or interfering with providers of legal abortions.
Russell said the meeting was prompted by Operation Rescue's wish to have the Justice Department give equal time to both sides in the abortion debate. Harris and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno had met with abortion rights activists after the killing.
Carl Stem, the Justice Department director of public affairs, said that the meeting was "amicable" and "very constructive."
The anti-abortion groups, in addition to condemning the slayings, expressed concern that the now federal act is scaring peaceful protesters into avoiding clinics and that federal efforts to crack down are infringing on First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
"Things people don't agree with do not lose status under the First Amendment," the Rev. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life said at a street corner press conferences after the meeting.
"She [Harris] said she is as concerned about infringements of the First Amendment as she is concerned about violence," he said.
However, the representatives failed to persuade Harris to specify the types of protest that he considers legal under the federal statute. Stern said that Harris told the group. "I don't teach a law school class. I'm not one to [delve] into the hypothetical."
Joining Pavone at the meeting were Flip Benham, director of Operation Rescue National, and the Rev. Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition.
The three voiced concern in the meeting that the Clinton Administration is, assigning more importance to crimes against women seeking abortions than to those protesting abortion.
Mahoney referred to an incident Oct. 6 in which an abortion protester was fired upon outside the Baton Rouge Delta Woman's Clinic in Louisiana. The protester was not injured.
Mahoney criticized the department for dispatching U.S. marshals to provide security at more than a dozen abortion facilities around the country after murders but not taking such action to protect protestors after the Baton Rouge incident.
Mahoney said Harris assigned a member of her department to be contacted in cases where anti-abortion rights have been violated.
Hill is to be tried in January on Florida state murder charges and could receive the death penalty in the shotgun killings of Dr. John Bayard Britton, 69, and his escort, James H. Barrett, 74.