When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state bans on same-sex marriage in 2015, conservative Christians predicted ruin. The Obama administration would round up pastors who refused to perform same-sex weddings. Churches would be forced to host the ceremonies. Faithful Christians would become social outcasts. None of that happened, of course, but urban legends are notoriously resilient beasts.
So perhaps protests targeting the presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, were inevitable. Buttigieg isn’t the first openly gay candidate for president — that distinction belongs to Fred Karger, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in 2012. But Buttigieg is arguably the most prominent gay candidate, and he is the first to run while married to another man. His candidacy will likely reveal either the strengths or the limitations of the nation’s professed tolerance for LGBT people.
More Americans support marriage equality than ever before: 75 percent believe gay and lesbian relationships should be legal, Gallup reported in 2019. But 23 percent disagreed, and while they’re a minority, they still constitute a relatively significant base of opposition to a basic civil right for LGBT people. To them, Buttigieg’s candidacy is another harbinger of doom. Buttigieg’s “relationship is not marriage,” the National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown claimed earlier this month.
On Wednesday, these attacks on Buttigieg escalated when a trio of activists, dressed as Satan, Jesus, and the mayor himself, showed up to protest the candidate’s Iowa campaign stops. CNN’s Dan Merica identified one of the men as Randall Terry.
Terry’s appearance at the Buttigieg rally invokes a specific, violent history. Once a used-car salesman, Terry is a radical anti-abortion activist. He founded Operation Rescue, an extremist organization with long-standing ties to the most violent factions of the anti-abortion movement. Under Terry’s guidance, the organization adopted dramatic tactics. Members blockaded clinics to physically prevent patients from entering the buildings; in 1989, Rolling Stone reported that police made 30,000 arrests connected to clinic “rescues” in two years. The organization’s senior vice-president, Cheryl Sullenger, served two years in federal prison for attempting to bomb an abortion clinic. In 2009, after Scott Roeder murdered George Tiller, an abortion provider, the Wichita Eagle reported that authorities discovered Sullenger’s name and phone number in a note in Roeder’s car. Sullenger said Roeder had only contacted her organization to receive details about Kansas’s ongoing prosecution of Tiller, whom the state had accused of violating regulations on late-term abortions. (Tiller was acquitted on all charges; Roeder attended his trial.) Terry himself organized protests alongside James Kopp before Kopp murdered Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider, in 1998. There’s no evidence that Terry materially assisted Kopp, but Terry’s aggressive tactics arguably placed clinics and doctors firmly into the shooter’s crosshairs. After Slepian’s death, Operation Rescue — then led by Flip Benham, an associate of Terry’s — released a statement that, in the words of the New York Times, “neither condoned nor condemned the killing.”
Terry’s star has faded with time. He no longer works with Operation Rescue, and at one point survived mostly off donations from the few supporters he could still claim. But his Buttigieg protest coincides with a recent campaign for renewed relevance. He recently appeared in Buffalo to announce a statewide “tour” to condemn Governor Andrew Cuomo for signing the Reproductive Health Act into law. Terry may hope to use Buttigieg’s campaign as a springboard to get back into the good graces of conservative Christians.
Randall Terry’s presence at Buttigieg’s events is a reminder that the Supreme Court’s verdict in Obergefell v. Hodges did not end the threat of violence toward LGBT people. But Terry doesn’t own Christianity, and Buttigieg, like any LGBT person, is certainly accustomed to defending both his faith and his person from antagonists like Terry. The candidate, for his part, told CNN that he would “prefer to have those kinds of debates in a respectful format, versus through interruption, but a president is going to have to deal with tougher things than being interrupted in a speech.”
This post has been updated to reflect that George Tiller was acquitted of violating state regulations on late-term abortions; the charges were not dropped.