- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Liberal religious groups joined secular pro-choice organizations Monday to mourn as a martyr one of the country’s most famous providers of late-term abortions.

A nationwide network of candlelight vigils and services took place from Lafayette Park in the District to Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Ore., and from Union Square in New York to Millennium Plaza in Yakima, Wash.

Hundreds of people were expected to gather at each locale to mourn Sunday’s fatal shooting of Dr. George Tiller on the grounds of his Lutheran church in Wichita, Kan. He was one of a handful of doctors in the country who did abortions after the sixth month of pregnancy.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boston held an evening memorial service where the Very Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, president of Episcopal Divinity School in nearby Cambridge, was one of several scheduled speakers.

“This is about the loss of a man who was a saint and a martyr,” she said in an interview before the service. “He was a prayerful man who put his life at risk to protect others and died for it. People are in shock, outrage and mourning. They need a place to go.”

Ms. Ragsdale said she once visited Dr. Tiller’s clinic in Wichita to defend it from anti-abortion protests. She has been excoriated on conservative Web sites for a July 21, 2007, speech in Birmingham, Ala., where she called abortion “a blessing.”

Reconstructionist Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center said Dr. Tiller “joins the list of martyrs for ethical decency and human rights, killed for healing with compassion.”

The rabbi said Dr. Tiller was “a religious martyr in the fullest classical sense, killed in his own church as he arrived to worship, killed for acting in accord with his religious commitments and his moral and ethical choices.”

He also invoked “all dishonor to those vicious attackers like [TV talk-show host] Bill O’Reilly, who have egged on the kind of violence that finally murdered Dr. Tiller. And who have blasphemously invoked the name of God to justify these incitements to murder.”

The suspect in the killing, identified as Scott Roeder, has been in police custody since hours after the shooting. He had not yet been charged Monday evening, though all indications suggest he will be charged in state court in Kansas.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. ordered U.S. marshals to offer protection to other abortion providers and facilities throughout the country, though Justice Department officials Monday declined to comment about whether any had taken Washington up on its offer.

But a Boulder, Colo., physician who also performs late-term abortions is reportedly under the guard of the U.S. Marshals Service. Sarah Huntley, spokeswoman for the Boulder Police Department, told ABC News that the service has taken over most of her department’s security responsibilities related to Dr. Warren Hern and his staff.

A group called Faith Aloud - formerly the Missouri Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice - expected to draw at least 100 people to an interfaith memorial service at St. John’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis, organized by the Rev. Rebecca Turner, a Disciples of Christ minister and executive director of Faith Aloud.

“He was a hero to many abortion clinic workers, who were aware of his incredible courage and bravery,” Ms. Turner said. “I knew him personally, so this will be a service of mourning for his wonderful life. He is the first abortion provider to put a chapel inside his clinic, and he had a chaplain on duty to work with all of his patients.”

More vigils will take place Tuesday in Atlanta and Columbia, Mo.

Lois Backus, executive director for the Philadelphia-based Medical Students for Choice, said student activists on some 137 medical school campuses across the country would use the vigils as an opportunity “to do something on their campus to recognize the loss of an important medical mentor.”

A group of religious leaders, several of them on President Obama’s faith advisory council, denounced the attack Monday morning as an attack on all religions.

“Such violence is an affront to the teachings of all faith traditions and an attack on civil society,” said a combined statement from organizations ranging from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to Evangelicals for Social Action and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

“Houses of worship have served as sanctuaries providing a safe harbor even in times of widespread violence for millennia,” the statement said. “That this act took place in Dr. Tiller’s church, where he was serving as an usher on Sunday morning, only underscores its abhorrence.”

The signers on Mr. Obama’s council included Melissa Rogers, director of Wake Forest University Divinity School’s Center for Religion and Public Affairs, and the Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, Fla.

• Julia Duin can be reached at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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