MASON, Ohio — Members of Mason City Council will be met by protesters from Planned Parenthood during Monday night's scheduled meeting over an issue that isn’t listed on the agenda — a proposed ordinance declaring the city of Mason a “sanctuary city for the unborn."
Leading up to Monday night's meeting, the discussion had already started. During a July 12 meeting, council candidate Margie Murray delivered an impassioned speech asking members to consider a proposal for an enforceable city ordinance that would ban abortion providers from performing abortions or prescribing abortion-inducing medication within city limits. The ordinance language also makes liable anyone “assisting” someone who is seeking an abortion within city limits. (Think pharmacies filling prescriptions, a friend helping someone make an appointment, an Uber driver knowingly driving someone to a clinic.)
Those determined to have violated the ordinance could face a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, the proposed ordinance states.
There are no abortion providers in the city of Mason, but that didn’t stop council member T.J. Honerlaw from vowing to sponsor the ordinance during the July 12 meeting. He said he has the support of Mayor Kathy Grossmann.
“We’re anxious to be sponsoring that here in Mason very soon,” he said during the meeting. “We have legislation being drawn up.”
The legislation would only impact Mason residents, but it was drawn up by a group more than a thousand miles away who helped the City of Lebanon achieve passage of a near-identical ordinance this May.
Mark Lee Dickson, founder of the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn initiative funded by Right to Life of East Texas, said he was in talks with people in Mason before the Lebanon ordinance was finalized. So far, Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn has helped 33 cities — 30 in Texas and two in Nebraska, in addition to Lebanon — create custom-tailored ordinances that outlaw abortion based on the state’s law and the city’s charter. The difficult legal research and language-writing that usually takes months for a council to draw up is already done when Dickson comes to town — council members just need to discuss and vote.
Dickson uses boilerplate language at the core of his ordinances that emphasizes making them enforceable, not symbolic. While city councils normally make decisions from the inside looking out on issues like roundabouts, small business incentives and sidewalks, council candidate Joy Bennett said this ordinance doesn’t fit in the realm of local politics.
“I just don’t think that this is something that belongs in a city council on their agenda,” Bennett said. “It has nothing to do with infrastructure, with parks; we have nothing like this in our legislation now, and it’s really disturbing that local government could be influenced by someone who is so far removed from our community.”
The city’s policy and legislation committee met on Aug. 4 to dig into the potential legal ramifications of adopting the abortion ordinance. Jeff Forbes, the city’s law director, broke down the risk of lawsuits.
“There’s always risk of liability when you pass what I would call an 'untested ordinance,'” Forbes told the committee. “If a court were to find it to be unconstitutional, then yes, there could be risk to the city.”
Right to Life of East Texas has said it would pay any legal fees associated with lawsuits related to the ordinance, but, like the ordinance language itself, the legal assistance would also come from way outside city limits.
“They have promises of free counsel, but even that counsel is not licensed to practice law in Ohio,” Foster said. “So these promises are probably going to be broken, and it will end up being our problem later.”
Dickson pushed back on this claim, saying Jonathan F. Mitchell, the former Texas Solicitor General, would work for free with a locally-licensed attorney if the city were taken to court.
In February 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought a lawsuit against seven cities that passed abortion ordinances in Texas. The ACLU later dropped the suit after the cities adjusted language in their ordinances that labeled some pro-choice groups as “criminal.”
Of all the 33 cities that have adopted these ordinances, only one had an existing abortion provider: Lubbock, Texas. It’s also the only city where council members overwhelmingly voted ‘No,’ citing concerns over costly legal fights. Citizens were eventually able to vote on the issue, passing the ordinance and effectively limiting service options for the Planned Parenthood that opened in their town one year prior. Planned Parenthood sued and the case was eventually dismissed.
The ordinance criminalizes abortions but it also gives private citizens the right to file lawsuits against other citizens for performing abortions or assisting those seeking one through “Private Right of Action.”
Forbes said he doesn’t know if the Private Right of Action component of the ordinance gives way to any potential legal liability; he hasn’t seen anything like it before.
“I am not aware of any city or municipal ordinance that grants a civil Private Right of Action to private individuals,” he said. “The whole framework of the thing is either constitutional or not, and I’m not sure the Private Right of Action is enough to tip it one way or another.”
None of the 33 sanctuary cities have had any cases brought against abortion providers or people assisting others seeking an abortion through Private Right of Action, according to Dickson. Lebanon City Council chose to leave the Private Right of Action component out of their ordinance.
Legal liability aside, some fear an abortion ordinance in Mason would make the city vulnerable to punishment in the form of dollars spent in the city.
“New businesses and new residents will be deterred from moving to Mason. I think that’s number one concern for a lot of folks,” said Nikki Foster, a Mason community member and former congressional candidate. “We’re very worried this could ruin our city and divide our city and we don’t want that.”
Bennett fears Mason businesses and events could face challenges similar to those in Lebanon after the city fell in the spotlight, becoming the first in the state to outlaw abortion.
“There was a large regional bicycle race in Lebanon that [happened] a few days after this ordinance passed there, and two teams found out about it and withdrew immediately,” she said. “And two sponsors would have, had there been any more time. That to me says it’s a PR nightmare. We have things like the Western & Southern Open where people from across the country come to Mason, and if they stop coming?”
As a candidate for council, she said she’s looking at ongoing projects with huge budgets that could suffer.
“We’re in the process of building a 50-meter Olympic-sized competition pool with the idea that teams will be able to come from all across the country, and that will be a huge tourism and economic boost in the city," she said. “If they don’t come because of this legislation, we’re holding a $20 million project with no revenue. That just makes my stomach twist.”
Organizers from Planned Parenthood said they will be organizing outside Monday night's 7 p.m. meeting.
“The unconstitutional ordinance that Mason, Ohio is considering introducing is part of an aggressive, nationwide anti-abortion agenda to do one thing — ban abortion outright," said Lauren Blauvelt-Copelin, of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio. "This ordinance is deeply out of touch with the views of the majority of Ohioans who want their neighbors to have access to abortion care. We will fight alongside of the people from Mason who are working to put a stop to this overreach of city council’s authority.”
Discussion of the ordinance was not on the council’s official agenda as of Monday afternoon, though Honerlaw has said it will be brought up during the meeting.
Honerlaw did not immediately respond to WCPO’s request for further comment.