June 10, 2021 by David Silverberg
A group agitating for the city of Naples, Fla., to declare itself a “sanctuary city for the unborn” could threaten the city’s tourism and hospitality-based economic recovery.
Naples experienced “an amazing April” in tourism recovery, Anne Wittine, the director of data analysis for Research Data Services, told Collier County’s Tourist Development Council on May 24, according to The Naples Daily News. Visitors and spending in the city were up over 1,000 percent over the year before and room nights and hotel occupancy increased over 900 percent.
Clearly, Naples is roaring back from its pandemic shutdowns. But all that recovery is threatened if it becomes the focal point of an unneeded controversy centered around a fringe movement out of Texas, which is seeking to ban all abortions within the city limits.
The new sanctuary cities movement
The anti-abortion “sanctuary cities” movement is the brainchild of Mark Lee Dickson, an itinerant preacher and self-professed 35-year-old virgin from White Oak, a small town in east Texas that sits an hour’s drive from the Louisiana border.
Dickson began preaching against abortion outside a women’s clinic in Shreveport, La., in 2012 and made the anti-abortion cause his own. He traveled rural Texas towns to preach his message. In 2019 he broached the idea of a “sanctuary city for the unborn” in tiny Waskom, Texas, population 2,189. He told Britain’s The Guardian newspaper that he wanted to forestall Waskom from having a clinic like nearby Shreveport’s across the state line.
“When I reached out to them it was all about protecting Waskom,” Dickson told The Guardian. “I didn’t have any other city in mind.”
The City Council of Waskom unanimously voted in a sanctuary city ordinance on June 11, 2019. The ordinance simply outlawed abortions within city limits.
From there, Dickson’s efforts led 23 other Texas towns and one town each in Nebraska and Ohio to pass anti-abortion ordinances.
The largest city to vote itself an anti-abortion sanctuary city is Lubbock, Texas, with a population of 278,831. Initially, the Lubbock City Council rejected the ordinance but it was then voted in by referendum on May 1.
It was immediately challenged in court by Planned Parenthood, which had opened a clinic there last year, and the American Civil Liberties Union, whose lawyers argued that the ordinance was unconstitutional. On Tuesday, June 1, a federal judge ruled that he did not have jurisdiction in the case and dismissed it, pointing out that because it would be enforced by private citizens through lawsuits rather than state or local authorities, he could not limit the right of private citizens to sue.
It was the same day the ordinance took effect. While the sanctuary cities movement counted it as a victory, the Planned Parenthood clinic continues to operate.
“We will continue to stand up for [our patients] with all of our resources,” Ken Lambrecht, president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, told The Texas Tribune.
Naples, a city of roughly 22,000 and known as politically very conservative, is a test case for this movement in Florida.
Dickson visited the North Naples Seed to Table market owned by extreme conservative Alfie Oakes, to preach in July 2020.
“I did not draw Naples, Florida out of a hat,” Dickson told WINK News at the time. “The people of Naples, we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people reach out to me and others saying they want their city to outlaw abortion. They don’t want babies to be murdered in the city.”
To date, 260 people claiming Naples residence have signed a petition supporting passage of the ordinance, although their actual residence in the city cannot be independently verified. (A complete list of the names of petitioners from those giving Naples as their residence can be read on the movement’s website here.)
On March 15 at the Naples City Council regular meeting, William Oppenheimer, a local lawyer and head of the anti-abortion organization Act for Life, proposed putting an anti-abortion ordinance on the Council agenda. Councilmembers rejected it by a vote of 4 to 3, with Paul Perry, Mike McCabe, Ray Christman, and Gary Price opposed and Mayor Theresa Heitman, Vice Mayor Terry Hutchinson and Ted Blankenship voting in favor.
At an April 19 working session, Mark Lee Dickson came to Naples and organized a demonstration of about 25 people favoring the ordinance but did not make comments to the Council. Five people spoke against the ordinance during the public comment period.
At the Council’s April 21 regular meeting abortion opponents held a demonstration and some spoke to the Council during the public comments period. At that time Oppenheimer vowed in an interview with WINK-TV that demonstrators would be back to protest at every city council meeting.
Annisa Karim, chair of the Collier County Democratic Party, told WINK News at the time: “I don’t believe that that is appropriate for a local municipality to be ruling on. I think it is government overreach at this level.”
The Naples City Council will convene this coming Monday, June 14 for a working meeting and on Wednesday, June 16 for a regular meeting. Demonstrators may be present. A “sanctuary city” ordinance is not on the agenda for either meeting.
Commentary: Civics and common sense
Any sensible person with even a passing knowledge of basic American civics can see that the proposal for a local ordinance of this nature is unconstitutional on its face. At the federal level, the issue of women’s choice is working its way up to the Supreme Court in a number of cases and will be decided there. That decision will apply to the entire country.
On a state level, declaring Naples—or any other Florida city—a “sanctuary city” may well be illegal, running afoul of the state’s anti-sanctuary city law. While that law may have been driven by an enmity against immigrants, it nonetheless may have banned the entire concept of sanctuary cities when the legislature passed it and the governor signed it.
And beyond the argument whether women have a right to make their own decisions regarding their health, from a local, municipal standpoint, the City Council of Naples would be doing itself and the city a deep disservice if it even considers this proposed ordinance.
This is a solution that Naples simply doesn’t need in search of a problem it simply doesn’t have. It’s not as though Naples is a hotbed of the kind of women’s health services that the sanctuary city people are trying to outlaw, nor is it something that vast numbers of actual city residents are demanding. Instead, a small group is trying to impose its will for no other purpose than to prove a point and meet its larger goals.
For a city that is attempting to emerge from the economic damage of a pandemic, a drop in tourism and hospitality business and which may be facing the additional blow of a red tide summer, a completely unnecessary, divisive controversy is the last thing it needs. As a Florida test case the ordinance debate would focus unfavorable national attention on the town, hurting its reputation as a welcoming and open vacation spot for everyone around the world.
Given its unconstitutionality, even considering whether to consider the ordinance is already consuming too much time that is much better spent on more pressing needs. If such an ordinance were to pass, it would impose expenses in litigation on a city that needs every penny it can get to meet its existing municipal responsibilities and obligations.
And from a purely parochial standpoint, this seems like another outlandish Texas idea that some extremist Texans are trying to foist on the rest of the country—like seceding from the union or creating an independent power grid that can’t withstand a winter storm.
So if the towns of Texas want to go their own way in this matter, they can certainly try. But for a Florida city that’s finally open for tourism and has a more welcoming and cosmopolitan view of the world, adhering to the US Constitution and following plain common sense seems like a much better bet.
To reach the members of the Naples City Council, contact:
- Mayor Teresa Heitmann
- Vice Mayor Terry Hutchison
- Ted Blankenship
- Gary Price
- Raymond Christman
- Michael McCabe
- Paul Perry
The Naples City Council meets at 735 8th Street South, Naples, Florida, 34102
Liberty lives in light
© 2021 by David Silverberg