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'Sanctuary City for the Unborn' ordinance to be on November ballot

Amarillo citizens will have their say this coming November 5 concerning the city becoming a "Sanctuary City for the Unborn." The controversial ordinance was submitted to the Amarillo City Secretary’s Office by the petition organizing committee on Friday, June 28.

“What you’re seeing is something that is going to the ballot because we couldn’t rightly define our jurisdiction, so this went outside of that in the fullness of the original ordinance. And I think we agree on that.

“But then I think that’s why this is being taken to the voter. I don’t think it’s being taken to the voter because the substance or the cause wasn’t something that we understood or could take action on. I think it’s the format, in the way in which it’s seeking to prohibit certain things outside of our city limits," Amarillo Mayor Cole Stanley said.

The Amarillo City Council will add the ordinance to the November ballot during its next meeting on July 9.

“We will present this statement to council at our next regular July 9 council meeting, and so at that point in time, we’ll present it to council, talk to council about it, and then anticipate bringing back a resolution probably on July 23 to order that election for November.

"Once the election takes place on Nov. 5 and the counties certify their results back to us, we will canvass that election, and at that point in time, if the election passes, then Council will approve that ordinance into law and adopt it, and if it fails, then we will canvass the election and nothing else will happen,” Amarillo City Secretary Stephanie Coggins said.

Councilmember Don Tipps said it's a "done deal" for the ordinance being included on the November ballot.

“Let the public educate the public. Let everybody have their say as it moves forward, and then we will all be eagerly waiting to see what the result will be on Nov. 5,” Mayor Stanley said.

Amarillo became the second city in the Panhandle and across Texas to vote against joining the growing list of "Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn."

The Amarillo City Council voted, 4-1, to reject both the original and amended versions of the “Sanctuary City for the Unborn" ordinance. Tipps was the lone council member to vote in favor of both versions of the ordinance.

It follows a similar effort of Clarendon City Council, which voted 3-0 against the proposed ordinance to declare itself a sanctuary city on May 10. The 2,000-person town sits about halfway between Amarillo and the Texas-Oklahoma border, roughly 60 miles from each.

What is a 'Sanctuary City for the Unborn'?

Abortion is illegal in Texas after the Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, which established the legal right to abortion nationally in 1973. In June 2022, the Supreme Court granted states permission to create their own abortion laws.

Texas has already implemented near-total bans on abortion, but activist Mark Lee Dickson is advocating for municipalities to establish themselves as Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn.

This initiative entails prohibiting abortion within the city limits, extending the ban to residents of "sanctuary cities" regardless of where the procedure is performed anywhere in the world, restricting the sale and possession of specific medical drugs within the city, and aiming to deter people from traveling through "sanctuary cities" to access abortion services.

Enforcement relies on citizens filing lawsuits against other people and abortion providers, according to the proposed ordinance.

Why did Amarillo vote against the ordinance?

Several people spoke for and against the measure, which came months after the 18-page ordinance was brought before the council last fall.

It did not receive council approval, and advocates pushed to bring it back to the council during the last city council meeting.

Councilmember Tom Scherlen expressed concerns over the impact of the proposed anti-abortion ordinance on local companies. He said it may impact those that provide travel for abortion in their insurance plans and could impede economic development as future businesses may avoid relocating to the area if the ordinance was in effect.

Others claimed it was more about making a political statement than saving lives, since Texas has already tightened abortion law so stringently over the last few years.

Now, the committee has 20 days to decide if they want to bring it to be placed on the ballot for voters to decide during the November election.

Stanley said the City Council has some concerns of their own on the original ordinance. While they are a pro-life council, they also believe in small government and feel the ordinance does not follow that direction.

“I hate to see this go to the ballot because of the strain that it’s going to put on the community, but we don’t have another choice. It’s not up to us,” Stanley said. “Petition committee can take it forward to the ballot, and that is the procedure that we’ve all agreed to.”

“It’ll only be the original, un amended version to go to the ballot, an amended version would have had to have been passed with council,” Stanley said. “So working on the amendment was only going to be time well spent if we had three votes for it, and you could see out there with the end of the discussion, we weren’t going to have three votes.”

If the committee moves forward with filing to place it on the ballot, the city secretary will present that to council at the next regular meeting and council will call an election for the next uniform election date.

“It’s complex. It is not black and white, and I think it will be messaging that will be difficult in communicating this to the public for their vote in November, and I full well expect this committee to take it to the ballot,” Stanley said.

Mark Lee Dickson, co-author of the petition ordinance, claimed the meeting was not organized and did not allow the initiating committee to present the amended ordinance.

“It was extremely disorganized meeting, and this whole process just very disturbing. There were people that were given a whole lot of time that had nothing to do with the actual petition process itself.

“While the initiating committee did not truly they were not truly given the time that they were thinking that they were going to get in this process. The ordinance was never read through section by section, and so when the votes came down, there was a lot of misinformation," Dickson said.

What's the existing law on abortion in Texas?

Texas has enacted various laws prohibiting abortion, most recently the 2021 Human Life Protection Act, which classifies elective abortions as felonies, imposes civil penalties and revokes the licenses of medical practitioners involved in such procedures.

Some laws predate the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned in June 2022, in Dobbs v. Jackson. These statutes regained effectiveness after that ruling.

Consequently, Texas laws ban nearly all abortions unless, “in the exercise of a reasonable medical judgment,” a doctor determines that the patient is experiencing “a life-threatening physical condition aggravated by, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy that places the female at risk of death or poses a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”

How many abortion sanctuary cities are there?

There are 69 cities across the U.S. that have voted to declare themselves "Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn," and 52 are in Texas.

In June 2019, Waskom in East Texas became the first city in the United States to pass an ordinance outlawing abortion within its city limits. The latest to join the list is also in Texas; the Muenster City Council unanimously voted to declare itself a Sanctuary City for the Unborn on April 8.

Most of the cities have populations of 25,000 or fewer, and only four, all in West Texas, have more than 100,000: Abilene, Odessa, San Angelo and Lubbock — the largest "Sanctuary City for the Unborn," with a population of 264,000. Its citizens voted in a citywide election to outlaw abortion with 68% of the vote.

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