League protest along Michigan Street in South Bend [Photo by Sam Scheidler]
On March 20, I received an e-mail from Karl Schudt, a friend who worked on the League’s 2006 Face the Truth crew. Karl wrote with breaking news: Barack Obama would be giving the commencement address this year at Karl’s alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. “Sounds like an opportunity for the mother of all protests,” Karl remarked.
After verifying Karl’s information at the Associated Press website, I called up my father, Joe Scheidler, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1950 and taught journalism there in the late 50s. “Guess who’s delivering the commencement at Notre Dame,” I said. “You get one guess.”
“Not Obama!” he replied. But it was true: the most pro-abortion president in U.S. history would be delivering the commencement address—and receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree—at the prestigious Catholic University of Notre Dame.
My father was disappointed, but not terribly surprised. He has a long history of fighting Notre Dame over their honors to pro-abortion politicians like Mario Cuomo and Bill Bradley, as well as the annual performance on campus of the pornographic V_______ Monologues. What he saw now was a golden opportunity to expose Obama’s radical pro-abortion agenda, which was covered up by the media throughout last year’s campaign.
The League Leaps into Action
The League immediately issued a press release calling on Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, CSC to withdraw the invitation. “Starting from his first week in office,” my father stated in the release, “President Obama has enacted a string of executive orders, appointments and policy decisions that contradict Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life—a teaching that Notre Dame is supposed to uphold. My alma mater should not be providing a platform for this president.”
He also made it clear that the League would take action if the invitation was not rescinded, including protesting on graduation day with large, graphic abortion pictures to show exactly what Barack Obama supports. “Father Jenkins cannot expect pro-life Catholics to stand back and allow the most pro-abortion president in U.S. history to make a mockery of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity,” he declared.
Meanwhile, I broadcast the same message on the League’s website and to thousands of pro-lifers on our e-mail list, alerting them to the scandalous invitation and calling on them to call, write and fax Fr. Jenkins to demand—charitably, but firmly—that he disinvite Barack Obama. I also contacted John-Paul Deddens, the director of Students for Life of Illinois, asking him to encourage his student contacts at Notre Dame to create a Facebook group denouncing the invitation. The group eventually grew to over 5,500 members.
My father also wrote a personal, registered letter to Fr. Jenkins, asking him for the opportunity to meet and discuss the Obama invitation. He never received the favor of a reply.
League Prepares for Massive Protest
As pressure mounted on Fr. Jenkins from all across the country to disinvite Obama, we began to prepare for the likelihood of protesting in South Bend on graduation day. Fr. Jenkins was clearly digging in his heels, so we began to scout out protest sites, finally settling on a 1.7 mile stretch along Michigan Street and Angela Boulevard. We also reached out to other pro-life groups like Michigan’s Citizens for a Pro-Life Society and the pro-life student coalition, Notre Dame Response.
On March 31, the League hosted a conference call with the students, including Mary Daly and Emily Toates from the campus pro-life group and Notre Dame Response media liaison John Daly, plus a group of key pro-life activists. We discussed ways to address the Obama scandal, including the importance of protests both on and off campus.
On Palm Sunday, April 7, my parents traveled to South Bend for a pro-life rally on the South Quad sponsored by Notre Dame Response. During the rally, a camera crew did an interview with my mother Ann, which became the core of an official Notre Dame Response video which received over 142,000 views on YouTube.
Ann also got in contact with South Bend attorney Dave Wemhoff to look into the need for permits for a protest off campus. While typically the League does not seek permits for this kind of protest, it seemed prudent to explore the possibility, considering the heightened security surrounding a presidential visit. We learned that two different permits would be required: one for Michigan Street from the Indiana Department of Transportation, the other for Angela Boulevard from the City of South Bend.
League staffer Corrina Gura contacted a bus company to arrange transport of protesters from the Chicago area, and made arrangements for lunch. And my assistant Matt Yonke ordered hundreds of handheld protest signs reading Obama=Abortion and Shame on Notre Dame.
Thousands Reached through Website and Billboards
League billboard on the Indiana Toll Road. [Photo by Eric Scheidler]
As it became clearer that Jenkins was not going to disinvite Obama, I saw the need for a website where people could get updates on the protests planned for graduation weekend. So I acquired the web domain NotreDameProtest.com and quickly designed a website with information on our protest plans, Obama’s abortion record and Catholic teaching on abortion and politics.
It was my mother Ann who suggested that the League should put billboards up on the Indiana Toll Road, Interstate 80/90. Monica Miller of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society loved the idea too, and helped pay for the project. Ann contacted Lamar, the billboard company, and I asked pro-life graphic designer Michelle Dellinger—who also designed the League’s new Sharing the Pro-Life Message handbook—to design the billboards.
Michelle came up with a great design: a picture of a beautiful baby in utero with text reading, “Notre Dame: Obama is pro-abortion. How dare you honor him.” But when we submitted the design to Lamar their lawyers balked, saying that we would have to “prove” that Barack Obama is pro-abortion.
So Ann collected a thick file of evidence showing Obama’s support for abortion throughout his career, and sent it on to Lamar’s lawyers. But still they weren’t satisfied, and suggested several alternatives, including “Obama is pro-choice”—clearly unacceptable—and “Obama is pro abortion choice.”
As odd as that wording was, we decided we could work with it. Our goal was to link Obama and abortion; as long as the word “abortion” was in there, we were on the right track. I suggested we underline the word “abortion,” as if to debunk the euphemism of “pro-choice”: “Obama is pro abortion choice.” That was the final language we used.
The billboards—one on either side of South Bend—were erected May 4. The one facing westbound traffic was installed 15 miles east of the Notre Dame exit on the Indiana Toll Road, while the one facing eastbound traffic was installed 25 miles to the west. The billboards were in place for two weeks before and two weeks after graduation day, reaching hundreds of thousands of drivers—including nearly all the families coming to Notre Dame for the graduation.
Protest Plans Hit Some Snags
League crew preparing for the protest at Notre Dame May 17, from left: Nate Scheidler, Eric Scheidler, Matt Yonke and Sam Scheidler [Photo by Cathy Hubeny]
A few weeks before graduation day, we received our permit from the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) for the protest along Michigan Street. But there was one problem: the time on the permit was incorrect. Somehow, the permit listed a time of 8-11 a.m.—but we would only be arriving from Chicago at 10:30, and planned to hold our signs all the way to 1 p.m.! The next day, our permits for South Bend arrived with the same erroneous time listed.
I alerted Dave Wemhoff to the problem, and he contacted INDOT about it. The agent he spoke with assured him there would be no problem extending the time. However, the City of South Bend was another story.
When we first sought a permit from South Bend, city officials required that we show proof of liability insurance. Ann looked into this and found that it would be cripplingly expensive—if we could get anyone to cover us in the first place. Despite the League’s long track-record of peaceful, orderly protests, company after company refused to issue any insurance. When we submitted the application, we indicated that we were seeking to acquire insurance, and that seemed to satisfy the City.
But when Wemhoff went back to the City Council to get an extension on our time, they demanded that we show proof of insurance up front. It looked like our protest along Angela Boulevard might be scuttled.
Then League staffer Corrina Gura found language in the South Bend city codes that suggested a peaceful picket was exempt from the city’s permit requirement. Ann Scheidler brought this to the attention of the city clerk, whose office issued a letter acknowledging no permit was required. The protest would go on as planned, after all!
Another difficulty was where to park in South Bend. Initially we sought permission to park at St. Joseph High School, right on the corner of Michigan and Angela, but the principal was reluctant because Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend had just spoken out against “unhelpful protests.” Holy Cross College also denied us parking.
But after Joe talked to officials at the chancery about our peaceul intentions, St. Joseph principal Susan Richter called back and graciously offered us the use of their parking lot after all. Ann sent her a box of Fannie May chocolate in thanks.
With the parking and permits issues settled, I worked with Corrina, Matt and John Jansen to prepare a “battle plan” for the protest day, including critical announcements for volunteers on the buses, deployment of all our graphic and picket signs, protocols for dealing with police and a detailed schedule for the day.
Pro-Life Road Trip from Chicagoland
The Notre Dame protest day began in the early morning hours of Sunday, May 17, in three locations throughout Chicagoland—the League office on the northwest side of Chicago, St. Thomas More Church on the south side, and Aurora Central Catholic High School in the western suburbs—where our hired buses picked up staff and volunteers for the ride to South Bend.
During the trip, League bus captains briefed volunteers on the plans for the day, how to deal with passersby, police and the press, and other key details. The highlight of the trip was passing the League’s billboard at mile 57 on the Indiana Toll Road.
I traveled to South Bend ahead of the buses with a cargo van packed full of “Face the Truth” and picket signs, along with my sons, Nate and Sam and my friend, Jason Klaske, who was later interviewed by a Fort Wayne, Indiana TV station. We arrived shortly after 9:00 a.m. and staked out the protest area, looking for anything that might require a last-minute change to the “battle plan.”
Powerful League Presence at Notre Dame
League protest along Angela Boulevard [Photo by Sam Scheidler]
At 10:00 a.m., volunteers began arriving at the protest headquarters at St. Joseph H.S. Soon the protest buses arrived, and I began putting wave upon wave of eager pro-lifers to work, assisted by Matt Yonke, John Jansen, Nate Scheidler, Sam Scheidler, JT Eschbach, Steve Klaske, Annie Casselman, Corrina Gura and Ann Scheidler. The League team—wearing bright, safety-green t-shirts and red “Choose Life” caps—quickly deployed hundreds of pro-life signs.
By the official protest start time of 10:30, a powerful display of more than 130 large, graphic abortion signs was in place, spanning nearly a mile north of the intersection and three-quarters of a mile east, right up to the main entrance of the university. Hundreds of our handheld Stop Abortion Now, Shame on Notre Dame and Obama = Abortion signs were interspersed throughout the protest, especially at the intersection of Angela and Michigan and at the university entrance.
Once the protest was up and running, I circled the area by bicycle, ensuring that all was in order and none of our volunteers was in any need. The League protest dominated the main route into campus from the Indiana Toll Road, reaching thousands of passersby, including those streaming in for the commencement ceremonies. We were far and away the largest pro-life group present that day.
Those arrayed along Angela Boulevard faced some resistance from local homeowners, some of whom counter-protested in favor of Obama from the comfort of lawn chairs in their yards. Several turned sprinklers on, and one even went so far as to stack a pile of filthy garbage bags on the edge of her lawn. The pro-lifers prayerfully ignored all these distractions.
Between the four full buses of League volunteers, others who drove down on their own and three buses of volunteers from Citizens for a Pro-Life Society in Michigan, the League protest comprised some 600 pro-lifers. We sent a clear message to both the University of Notre Dame and President Obama that abortion is an abominable betrayal of both the Catholic principle that life is sacred and the American principle that life is an inalienable right.
League Group Joins Vigil at Grotto
League volunteers with Stop Abortion Now signs pray at the Vigil for Life on campus at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes [Photo by Sam Scheidler]
By 12:45 p.m., anyone coming for the commencement was already on campus, so we began escorting volunteers from the farther ends of the protest back to headquarters for lunch. Hundreds of sandwiches were distributed to the group while the League staff stowed the large signs and prepared for the brief ride onto campus to join the prayer vigil at 2:00 p.m.
The vigil was held at the beautiful Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, and was led by Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life. My father, who had already gone on campus to visit the Rally for Life taking place on the South Quad, greeted the League arrivals as they walked from the buses to the Grotto.
As the group of 600 pro-lifers prayed the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary at the Grotto, together with hundreds more joining in by video from the South Quad, I scoped out the activity elsewhere on campus, again by bicycle. I saw and heard snippets of the speeches by Fr. John Jenkins and President Obama, which were being broadcast throughout campus, visited the protest continuing at the university entrance, and rode by the Joyce Center as Obama was speaking. I paused to offer a prayer for the president’s conversion.
The vigil concluded at 3:30 p.m. and the League protest team led the group back to our waiting buses for the return trip to Chicago. The mood on the journey home was extremely upbeat. All felt grateful to have been a part of such a significant and effective pro-life witness—a true turning point for the pro-life movement. Passengers on the Aurora bus sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and other hymns, accompanied by a concertina.
Obama Values Tone over Truth
It wasn’t until returning home that we could find out what President Obama had said during his commencement address. I was surprised to learn that Obama brought up the abortion issue at all—clearly a sign that he feels vulnerable on the issue. Obama praised those with “open hearts” and “open minds” who use “fair-minded words” when talking about the controversial abortion issue—as if suggesting that those opposing his speech are hard-hearted, close-minded and shrill.
Considering how radically out of step Obama’s abortion stance is with the views of most Americans, I wasn’t surprised to see him emphasize tone and style over substance.
I also found several troubling ironies in Obama’s speech. He cited the golden rule, but failed to see how it would teach each of us, nurtured in our own mothers’ wombs, to respect the life of every unborn child. He lamented that “the strong too often dominate the weak” without realizing that the unborn child is the weakest of us all.
N.D. “Opposition” to Obama Policies Rings False
University president Fr. Jenkins’ introduction to President Obama was in some ways more troubling than Obama’s speech itself. Fr. Jenkins noted that “President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him” and then declared, “Mr. President: This is a principle we share.” Yet Fr. Jenkins steadfastly refused to meet with pro-life leaders like my father who respectfully requested meetings with him after the Obama invitation was announced. He wouldn’t even meet with his own university’s pro-life student group.
Fr. Jenkins also praised Obama for being willing to accept his invitation, despite knowing that “we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research.” But when Obama referred to parents who think embryonic stem cells might help their ailing children, the audience erupted in applause. Clearly the problem at Notre Dame goes far deeper than this semester’s controversy over Barack Obama.
Mission Accomplished: Obama Linked to Abortion
Despite the efforts of Fr. Jenkins and President Obama to demonize their pro-life opponents as uncivil and closed-minded—even while calling for open-mindedness and a respect for others’ views—the League’s protest was an overwhelming success.
Throughout last year’s presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s radical pro-abortion agenda was covered up. Thanks to the Notre Dame controversy, Americans are learning that Barack Obama is the abortion president. Mission accomplished.
Moreover, the Notre Dame controversy has galvanized the pro-life movement like no other issue in years. If Fr. Jenkins and Barack Obama had set out to wake up the sleeping giant of pro-life Americans, they couldn’t have done a better job. A turning point for the pro-life movement was reached in South Bend, Indiana on Graduation Day 2009.