Suntree store owner turns sprinklers on protestors
By Jeff Schweers, FLORIDA TODAY
SUNTREE — Pro-life activists picketing the new location of a women’s health center that provides abortions got soaked Monday morning by an irate store owner who said, they were scaring away customers.
“Do you think people will come in here with their kids past signs showing a dead fetus?” Dennis Kelley of Kelley’s Collectibles in Suntree Plaza said, referring to one demonstrator’s poster.
Kelley turned the sprinklers on the handful of protesters after they refused to move away from a sidewalk in front of his store at the north corner of the shopping center. He already had called Brevard county deputies and towing company because the group’s Kelley’ members had parked in the shopping center’s parking lot.
Whether store owners like it or not, abortion protesters said they would be on the sidewalk until the new clinic closes down.
“We’ll be here as long as we have to be,” Christians for Life Director Rick Dean said.
“We’ll be peaceful, and it appears we’ll be wet.”
The newly opened Woman Care of Melbourne, the successor to the Aware Woman Center for Choice, is located behind Kelley’s store in a separate building that previously housed the American Cancer Society.
Its new location in a privately owned shopping center poses some logistical hurdles for protesters, who are barred by a federal injunction from trespassing on private property to stand in front of the clinic.Mr. Kelley in front of his sign positioning his sprinkler to water the pro-lifers.
Demonstrators can legally picket on the public sidewalk on Wickham Road.
But they were told to move their cars from the parking lot, which is private property.
“Our goal is not to be a problem at all to any of our neighbors,” said Tammy Sobieski, director of the Women’s Health Center of Orlando, which took over operation of the former Aware Woman clinic July 1.
“We knew there’d be an initial flurry of activity,” Sobieski said at the freshly painted clinic. “Standing at the corner doesn’t change any woman’s mind about having an abortion.”
Meredith Raney, spokesman for Christians for Life, said Kelley should be grateful that the local pro-lifers at the protest are sworn to nonviolence.
“We don’t have control over all the pro-lifers,” Raney said. “Others might come, and they might not be as nice as us.”
Aware Woman was the subject of a landmark 1994 U.S. Supreme Court that upheld a 36 foot buffer around the clinic’s entrance on Dixie Way and U.S. 1.
But when the clinic was forced to move for a state Department of Transportation road-widening project, the buffer zone did not transfer to the new location.
However, a 1998 federal racketeering case created a nationwide injunction that affects all clinics that provide abortions. It doesn’t include a buffer zone, said Sara N. Love, legal director of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project and an attorney on the team that presented NOW’s racketeering case against Operation Rescue’s Joseph Scheidler and others.
The injunction says no protestor can block, impede, inhibit access to or obstruct access to a clinic that provides abortions, Love said. They also can’t destroy or steal property, trespass, use violence or threats of violence or operate an enterprise that does those things on behalf of the named defendants.
But as long. as the protesters are on public property and are engaged in lawful protest, Love said, they are not in violation of the injunction.
“The injunction doesn’t prohibit First Amendment activities, like carrying pickets, handing out literature, making speeches or praying on public property,” Love said.
Kelley didn’t blame the clinic or its owners, but the protestors.
“They’re imposing their will on everyone else,” Kelley said.
Raney said, if it wasn’t for the clinic, he and other pro-lifers wouldn’t be outside picketing.
“Why is he blaming us? We wouldn’t be there if the clinic wasn’t there,” Raney said. “We’re sorry if we’re hurting his business, but we can protest on a public sidewalk, and we’ll be there as long as the clinic is here.”
Raney — who has been involved in abortion protests all over the country — tried unsuccessfully to file charges against Kelley for getting abortion protesters wet.
Sheriff’s deputies refused to cite Kelley or the protestors.
“It was nothing consequential,” West Precinct Commander Joe Crosby said. The deputies went out. They were able to neutralize the situation.” Under most circumstances, getting soaked with a sprinkler would not be considered a battery, Assistant State Attorney Wayne Holmes said.
“If someone turns on a sprinkler, common sense says get out of the way or enjoy the shower,” Holmes said.