March/April, 1998 Volume XII Number 11

Doctor's anti-abortion sign violates township ordinances, authorities say

A doctor, whose vocal and visual abortion protests led to battles three years ago with officials in two West Michigan counties where he served as medical examiner, is challenging authorities again.
Dr. Ronald Graeser now says his rights of free speech and religious expression are being threatened by a billboard ordinance. Garfield Township officials charged Graeser Thursday in Newaygo County District Court with a misdemeanor crime for posting a 12-by-8-foot sign on his lawn.
The man who served as pathologist of Mecosta and Lake counties until angering officials by saying it is morally justifiable to kill people who perform abortions, said Thursday that the object in his yard isn't a sign. It's a work of art signed by the artist. It stands behind a display of 680 white crosses on Graeser's lawn that spell out the word "abortion."
He placed the crosses back in 1994 to represent what he said is the approximate number of abortions performed every working hour. "I tried to give people an idea of the magnitude of the problem," he said.
Motorists stop regularly in his driveway. Many more now stop to read artwork he added this fall, featuring five verses of the New International Bible's 139th psalm.
Graeser checked the township zoning rules before putting it up, and was warned it was too big to be allowed in his neighborhood five miles east of Fremont. Graeser said he refused to apply for a variance that might have allowed the sign as an exception to the rules.
"I have a God-given and constitutional right of free speech and religious exercise," Graeser said. "If I have to go to them and beg for my right, that is wrong.
"The government is supposed to protect this right, not come after you."
If convicted, Graeser could face up to 90 days in jail and fines of up to $500, but the township isn't seeking punishment, according to its lawyer.
"Generally, what the township is after is simple compliance with the ordinance," said Kevin Kozma. "This is not a free speech issue. It is just the township going forth with its obligation to enforce its zoning ordinances." Signs in Garfield Township residential districts may not be larger than 16 square-feet. That would allow a 4-by-4 foot square. Kozma said whether it is a sign or a work of art makes no difference.
"It is simply a matter of dimensions," he said.
Graeser gained statewide notoriety in 1995, when he signed a petition that declared deadly force was justified in the defense of the unborn. He later said he didn't mean to encourage violence, but understood the logic of killing a few abortionists to stop the mass practice.
He said Thursday he has not changed his mind about what he said, despite losing contracts to act as medical examiner in Mecosta and Lake counties in the controversy that followed. Graeser said he has remained in medical practice, most recently working in hospital emergency rooms as a contract employee.
He also has remained devoted to the anti-abortion cause.
Graeser commissioned Shelby-based artist Susan Waldrep to create drawings of stages of fetal development between the printed words of the psalm.
"I saw it and thought it was the perfect backdrop for my little graveyard," Graeser said. He mounted the plywood-backed artwork on a post, supported by two 1,000-gallon steel drums.
It reads: "0 Lord you have searched me and you know me for you created my inmost being. You knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful. I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be."
"It's been nice," Graeser said. "People stop and read it probably every 5 to 10 minutes. It's not really a sign. It's a signed piece of art that people can't read passing by. They have to sit there for three minutes to actually read it."
Erin Wilson, director of public information for the Wyoming-based Right-to-Life of Michigan, said his organization is familiar with pro-life advocates who have faced what he called "censor-ship," but he added that the organization opposes those who see violence as a way to further the cause.
"We experienced censorship from the major networks just this month trying to place our Mother Theresa advertisements on the networks. So we can empathize with the freedom of speech issues," Wilson said.
Graeser also blames newspapers and television broadcasters for failing to give more attention to anti-abortion messages. He said the omission of graphic photos and details of abortion in mainstream media has promoted an uninformed and apathetic public.
"If you had any emotional inkling of what's going on you would be beside yourself. This is not some esoteric thing. It's life and death. lt's innocent children," he said. "Do something about it. Don't hide your head in the sand."

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Doctor's anti-abortion sign violates township ordinances, authorities say