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‘Unnecessary and Unlawful’: Pro-Life Group Sues DOJ for Targeting Pro-Life Advocate

May 24, 2024

While the Biden administration continues prosecuting pro-life Americans, one organization is fighting back in court. Pro-life group 40 Days for Life filed a lawsuit this week against the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for “[m]alicious/retaliatory prosecution, abuse of process, false arrest and related claims” committed against pro-life advocate and Catholic father of seven Mark Houck.

In 2022, Houck was indicted by the DOJ for two alleged violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. The 40 Days for Life lawsuit claims that these charges “were a result of a faulty and malicious investigation of Mr. Houck,” who the lawsuit further states “had been targeted for indictment without probable cause because of his beliefs, his public prayer and speech, and his position as a counselor associated with a crisis-pregnancy center.”

In a statement to The Washington Stand, 40 Days for Life CEO and president Shawn Carney said, “For two decades, 40 Days for Life worked closely with the great men and women at the FBI and DOJ to protect our volunteers and those who disagree with us in the public square. Our peaceful, law-abiding efforts never changed.”

He continued, “What changed? The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and the weaponization of the DOJ against pro-life Americans and Catholics skyrocketed. America doesn’t belong to the FBI, it belongs to law-abiding citizens no matter their religion or political affiliation. The bigotry and selective prosecution of our government cannot silence us to peacefully and legally share our beliefs in the public square.”

The lawsuit claims that the FBI “purposefully conducted a biased and corrupt investigation” against Houck, a frequent volunteer with the pro-life organization. “The actions of the FBI’s investigators were contrary to the Department of Justice’s … public policy that the FACE Act ‘is not about abortions,’” the lawsuit continues. “Yet below the surface, the investigators’ actions were fully in accord with extrajudicial statements of DOJ leadership that pro-life services are ‘fake’ and ‘predatory’ upon abortion rights.”

The DOJ’s accusations against Houck stemmed from an incident in 2021, when Houck and his then-12-year-old son were praying outside a Philadelphia abortion facility. As was later demonstrated in court, Planned Parenthood employee Bruce Love left his post to approach Houck, spewing “ridicule and profanity” at the child. Of note, Love had a history of being reprimanded by Planned Parenthood for violating the abortion company’s policy and “antagonizing” pro-life advocates. When Love refused to heed the pro-life father’s warnings to leave his son alone, Houck shoved him. According to the Thomas More Society, which represented Houck in court later, Love tried to initiate a private prosecution against Houck but failed to appear at his own hearing.

Although Houck had, through the Thomas More Society, previously agreed with the DOJ to appear voluntarily if there were federal charges against him, the FBI decided instead to raid his home with at least two dozen agents armed with guns and riot gear, arresting him in front of his wife and children in September 2022. The Thomas More Society called this show of excessive force “an effort to intimidate Mark and others who minister outside abortion clinics.” Noting that Houck’s wife and children “were directly downrange of the agents’ guns,” the 40 Days for Life lawsuit states, “In a shocking display of the political animus against the pro-life movement harbored at the highest levels of the Department of Justice, Mr. Houck was treated like a dangerous criminal. He was arrested at gunpoint in front of his wife and children.”

Houck’s trial began in January 2023 and lasted only a week. After less than an hour of deliberation, a jury returned a unanimous verdict of “not guilty.”

The 40 Days for Life lawsuit argues that the DOJ’s and FBI’s “egregious and excessive show of force,” which was “both unnecessary and unlawful,” “deprived Mr. Houck of his Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force to arrest him on non-violent charges when he had not threatened law enforcement, did not own a gun, and had offered to turn himself into authorities if indicted.”

The lawsuit further explains that Houck was a volunteer with the nearby Community Women’s Center of America (CWCA), a pregnancy resource center just down the street from the Planned Parenthood facility where Houck prayed. Houck frequently counseled women entering Planned Parenthood to seek alternatives to abortion and escorted them to CWCA. 40 Days for Life estimates that “Mr. Houck and his family have saved an estimated 100 lives due to their peaceful activity outside the Planned Parenthood abortion facility…” According to the lawsuit, Houck and Love should both have been protected by the FACE Act, since they were both “providing or attempting to provide access to reproductive healthcare services.”

Love’s habit of leaving his post and often physically obstructing Houck’s efforts to counsel pregnant women “was a violation of the FACE Act by Mr. Love, not Mr. Houck. Yet Mr. Love was not charged, and Mr. Houck was,” the lawsuit states. Furthermore, the FBI failed to investigate Love’s own violations of the FACE Act. Despite being aware of the Planned Parenthood employee’s physical interjections against Houck, the FBI knowingly allowed Planned Parenthood to destroy video footage of Love’s admitted violations of the FACE Act. “This selective prosecution had a

substantial effect on Mr. Houck’s second charge, enhancing the potential maximum penalty from three years to eleven years, as a predicate or prior offense,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit further explains that video surveillance footage, eyewitness testimony, and Love’s own admission — all reviewed by the FBI — make it clear that Houck shoved the Planned Parenthood employee in an effort to protect his then-12-year-old son. There were no individuals present who were attempting to enter the Planned Parenthood facility, meaning that the incident should not have been considered a violation of the FACE Act, according to the lawsuit. “Mr. Love’s conduct was therefore motivated by, and for the express purpose of interfering with, Mr. Houck’s work for the CWCA,” the lawsuit reasons.

After interviewing both Houck and Love, the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia district attorney decided not to bring charges against Houck, which was, according to a spokesperson for the district attorney, so that “the DOJ could assume and lead the investigation.” Given all of the evidence available to them through local law enforcement authorities, the lawsuit argues that FBI investigators and DOJ prosecutors “understood at the time of their investigation of Mr. Houck they were serving a malicious and illegitimate purpose in facilitating the prosecution of Mr. Houck, while ignoring Mr. Love’s violations of the FACE Act.”

The lawsuit also explains that the DOJ’s targeting of Houck and his family has had lasting negative impacts on the family. Houck has been consistently worried about leaving his house, fearing for the safety of his family in his absence; his wife and children have also suffered heightened anxiety anytime Houck has had to leave the house. Houck’s children are reportedly terrified when they see police officers and vehicles and suffer from trauma-related sleep problems. Additionally, the stress caused by the FBI raid on their home has resulted in Houck and his wife suffering three miscarriages.

“Mr. Houck finds it important to be strong for them; however, carrying his own emotional burden alongside the grief and fear his wife and seven children experience has taken an enormous toll on Mr. Houck,” the lawsuit explains. “He has been forced to deal not only with his own trauma but also with the trauma of everyone in his household.”

Houck and his family have also suffered economically and socially due to the federal government’s public allegations that Houck committed a federal crime and did violence against a volunteer. The lawsuit requests a trial by jury and is seeking a total of $300,000 in compensatory damages and an unspecified sum in punitive damages.

Although Houck was acquitted last year, the Biden DOJ has managed to put other pro-life advocates in prison. Just last week, Lauren Handy was sentenced to nearly five years in federal prison for her role in protesting inside a Washington, D.C. abortion facility.

S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.