The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. / Shutterstock
Denver Newsroom, Jan 26, 2022 / 17:06 pm (CNA).
A pro-abortion rights group drew wide condemnation from Catholics, including Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, for projecting pro-choice slogans on the facade of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a Mass and Holy Hour on the eve of the March for Life last Thursday.
Whether the display broke the law, however, is another question.
The basilica, located next to the Catholic University of America, lists a private property policy on its website.
“The basilica exists to provide a respectful, distraction-free place of prayer, pilgrimage and worship,” the policy says. It bars trespassing and “distribution of any non-basilica approved materials on its private property regardless of the cause or issue represented.”
“No activity, event or use shall take place upon the basilica’s property, other than those sponsored by the Basilica, unless the individual or group involved has received prior written approval for such activity, event or use,” the policy continues.
Failure to comply with the policy will result in notification to local law enforcement and the filing of “all appropriate criminal charges,” the basilica says.
At the same time, targeted light displays on property might not constitute illegal trespassing under current law, the Thomason Reuters Foundation reported in June 2019. Protesters have been using this tactic for more than a decade. Union members have projected their messages on businesses during labor disputes, and a critic of President Donald Trump projected a message on the Trump Hotel in D.C.
One group opposed to abortion has projected graphic images of an unborn abortion victim on the buildings of abortion provider Planned Parenthood.
CNA contacted the basilica for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.
Catholics for Choice, the group behind the Jan. 20 display, has repeatedly been rejected by the U.S. bishops as a non-Catholic group. Cardinal Gregory said the projection demonstrated that the protesters “really are external to the Church,” and cited a biblical verse, John 13:30, that referenced the betrayal of Judas.
The group is largely funded by wealthy non-Catholics who favor legal abortion. Recent major donors include the Susan Thompson Buffet Foundation, funded by the financier Warren Buffett and family; and the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, funded by the family of a co-founder of the Hewlett Packard company.
John Czarnetzky, dean of the Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida, was at the National Shrine during the Mass while the display was taking place outside. When he saw the news of the light display, he found it “immature,” he told CNA Jan. 25.
While he was not an expert on whether the display could have violated local law, he said it’s possible the organizers of the light display projections calculated their actions to avoid breaking the law.
If the light projection had disrupted services inside the basilica, there could be a stronger case that a law was violated, Czarnetzky said. If the basilica had known of the effort ahead of time, it could have asked for a restraining order.
In New York City last Saturday, protesters of a Catholic pro-life vigil were much more militant.
Attendees at the Archdiocese of New York’s Prayer Vigil for Life at St. Patrick’s Cathedral were greeted by about 100 rowdy protestors. The protesters included members of the activist group New York City for Abortion Rights. Some of the protestors chanted insults and screamed vulgarities at them.
They made obscene gestures as a range of people from young children to elderly men and women who entered or exited the midtown Manhattan church.
Toward the end of the protest, a light projection system displayed pro-abortion slogans including "God loves abortion," and "Abortion forever" on the exterior of the cathedral as demonstrators cheered.
While light displays and obscene, aggressive protesters can be provocative, Czarnetzky advised Catholics to respond by following Christ’s advice to “turn the other cheek.”
Any physical altercation between a person angered by protests could result in legal action against the person angered, he warned.
The light projection protests at Catholic churches leave no damage, but they come amid a wave of vandalism in American cities. Some vandals have faced criminal charges for damaging churches with painted messages that object to Catholic opposition to abortion.