When Santa Rosa County’s Board of Commissioners met Thursday morning, items on the agenda included improving the drainage on Tibet Drive, upgrading the local boat ramp, and allocating money to buy new scoreboards at Chumuckla Park.
Then, at the end of the meeting, came a far more controversial and divisive matter, one that is likely to have an impact beyond the Florida community of 150,000 people.
Dozens of local residents, many holding placards and pointing fingers, lined up to speak for and against a proposal to become the first “abortion sanctuary city” in Florida.
The wacky—and possibly unconstitutional—concept, which co-opts a label used by liberal cities that protect undocumented immigrants, has taken off in small, deeply conservative towns across Texas in the last six months.
Waskom, a Texas town of 2,000 people, was the first city in the U.S. to become a “sanctuary city for the unborn” after its all-male board voted unanimously last July. Eleven more Texas towns, mostly in the state’s east, followed suit, although a handful of towns have voted against proposed ordinances.
The local ordinances vary in severity. Waskom’s outlaws abortion (which it called “murder with malice aforethought”), makes it unlawful to assist someone to get an abortion, and prevents Planned Parenthood and other reproductive services (which it calls “criminal organizations”) from operating within city limits. Violating the local health ordinance can incur a fine. Some other towns’ ordinances allow family members of an unborn baby to sue the abortion doctor; not all have included provisions for rape and incest. Most are in towns with no abortion services anyway.
The movement has been pushed by Mark Lee Dickson, a pastor from Longview, Texas, who first proposed the idea to Waskom’s mayor and has since set up a website with printable petitions that people can submit to their local boards.
“I knew it was a crazy idea,” Dickson said. “Once it passed in Waskom, it was, ‘Well, what’s next?’ And it just made sense that if [abortion providers] aren’t going to come to Waskom now, they’re just going to go somewhere else, so we need to make sure other cities are safe as well.”
Dickson said he’d been contacted by people in Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Indiana.
In Santa Rosa County, which neighbors Pensacola and includes the small cities of Milton and Navarre, the vote on Thursday became so heated that the Board of Commissioners, which was split on whether to adopt the resolution, decided it should go to a county-wide referendum instead.
Santa Rosa would become the first place outside Texas to adopt the concept, potentially kicking off a trend for other cities in the U.S..
One of the county’s commissioners, Lane Lynchard, said he didn’t think it was right for a local board to wade into divisive national issues.
“It has accomplished nothing other than pitting people against one another,” he said on Thursday, adding that 80 percent of emails and messages he’d received on the issue were against it. “We can’t legislate people’s beliefs. I think we need to stick with governing the county.”
Another commissioner, Dave Piech, was booed by attendees when he said the resolution had morphed into divisive name calling.
“Actions speak louder than words,” someone shouted as Piech insisted he was anti-abortion but thought it was beyond the purview of five male commissioners.
Local resident Alison Hartman, a mother of 10, said the board “needed to stand up and be a voice for the rest of the county.”
“All you old people that stood up and said you’re ‘pro-choice’ and against babies,” she said, pointing toward a small crowd of abortion-rights activists. “If it was your grandbabies, it’d be different.”
In Texas and Florida, where some form of abortion is legal, anti-abortion ordinances are likely to be unconstitutional, more a headline-grabbing move for small-town activists. But they scare women away and confuse them into thinking abortion is not legal in those places, abortion providers say.
“The idea of a sanctuary from one’s constitutional rights is a new twist,” The Very Reverend Katherine H. Ragsdale, president of the National Abortion Federation, said, adding that it was a new tactic from an old playbook of demonization and policy manipulation.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas called the Waskom ordinance a “grandstanding mechanism” and said abortion access was a constitutional right.
Sara Latshaw, deputy political director of the ACLU of Florida, said they were “disappointed that Santa Rosa commissioners have decided to prolong this political theater instead of focusing on local matters. Any such resolution or referendum is just a tactic to shame those in need of care.”
Several towns have voted down proposals due to the risk of potential lawsuits. Dickson likened the ordinances, which are stronger than largely symbolic resolutions, to local bans on cigarette sales or sugary sodas. He said cities that have passed ordinances have been subjected to threats; Waskom had clothes hangers mailed to the town recently.
“It’s caused a lot of hate to come towards some of these cities and it is not something that any of them take lightly,” he said.
Residents in Santa Rosa will vote on the proposal in November.