City Commissioners Decline to Enter the Abortion Fray

Lakeland city commissioners on Monday chose not to act on repeated requests made during their last three meetings to declare Lakeland a “sanctuary city for the unborn” and to shut down the one abortion clinic in town.

Mayor Bill Mutz said the commission as a whole is “strongly pro-life,” but the consensus was to refrain from acting unless cases making their way to the U.S. Supreme Court change the legality of abortion.

The abortion issue has been raised by a handful of speakers during the pubic comment period at the end of the last three City Commission meetings. Citing the Bible and religious convictions, they have asked the city to close the Lakeland Women’s Health Center, 4444 S. Florida Ave. (In response, two speakers have also asked the commission to deny the sanctuary city requests.)

The first request to declare a sanctuary city for the unborn came Oct. 18 from Jon Friedt, pastor of Believers Fellowship on North Socrum Loop Road, and several members of his church.

The only response from the commission that day was from Stephanie Madden, who thanked the speakers “as somebody who is passionate about that issue” and said she would ask the city attorney “if there are such opportunities to make those kinds of ordinances within our city.”

There was no commission response to the anti-abortion speakers on Nov. 1, the day before the city elections.

But Madden spoke up again Monday after several speakers repeated the sanctuary city requests, saying she was “game for the conversation.” She said she views the issue as technological not religious and that science has shown that “it’s a person inside of a person.” She told the other commissioners, “I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about it.”

The first to respond was Commissioner Chad McLeod, who said he is “strongly and passionately pro-life” but noted there are legal ramifications and asked City Attorney Palmer Davis to share his research on the issue.

Davis responded that the focus of the commission should be on the role of local government. “Regardless of how you feel about the underlying issue, currently abortion, at certain stages, is a lawful procedure that’s received protection from the Supreme Court, also recognized by Florida statutes and by the Florida Supreme Court. So that is the blunt fact that you’re up against.”

He continued, “So to ban an existing abortion clinic, I think, would result in a petition for a temporary emergency injunction and a permanent injunction. And the way that the law is right now, I would not think that you would succeed in that ban.”

He noted that “the Texas heartbeat law is making its way to the (U.S.) Supreme Court and the Mississippi law on viability, I think, is also scheduled for oral arguments Dec. 1 or early December. So there is a lot in flux at the federal level and at the state level as well. But the question is what role can a city government play in that issue and I don’t think you’re in the strongest position to address that issue.”

Commissioner Phillip Walker declared himself pro-life, but said said he didn’t want the city to overstep its bounds unless there are legal changes at the federal level.

Mayor Bill Mutz was next to speak: “So in summary, on this topic we are blessed to serve with a commission that is strongly pro-life, but we do not want to race against what we know are existing laws that protect the rights of people to make decisions even when we think those choices are very, very costly, but they are legal today.” He suggested waiting to see what happens “legislatively and judicially before we want to move forward.”

McLeod said local government should not pass a law that would conflict with federal and state law, even if commissioners don’t agree with those laws. “Everybody would want us to protect that because there may be an issue where you’re on the other side of it.”

Commissioner Bill Read said he doesn’t “have the appetite to address this issue until it’s changed by the Supreme Court.”

Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley suggested that the commission “stay in our lane” and not let large social issues distract them from the business of city government, such as making land-use decisions.

Commissioner Mike Musick made no comment on the abortion issue at Monday’s meeting.

Video: Audience comments followed by the commission’s remarks about the abortion issue

City Commission Meeting – November 15, 2021 from City of Lakeland on Vimeo.

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