LINDALE, Texas — A small group of women at a recent City Council meeting held hands and offered hushed prayers in an otherwise silent room.
Everyone was waiting for the council members to decide whether their community would become the next “sanctuary city for the unborn.”
No one was trying to build an abortion clinic in the Texas community of Lindale, population 6,000. But they wanted to keep it that way.
Persuaded by a shaggy-haired pastor in a backward baseball cap, a dozen other Texas communities already had passed measures prohibiting abortion within their borders.
Legal scholars call the efforts unconstitutional, and some critics have sued. But that hasn’t curtailed Mark Dickson, the pastor, and a director for the Right to Life East Texas.
“We’re really trying to protect the culture and the atmosphere that these cities already have,” Mr. Dickson said.
Sanctuary cities for the unborn are the latest way some American communities are attempting to wall themselves off from rules they disagree with, laws imposed by higher authorities that do not match their values.
It’s a tactic embraced by both ends of America’s political divide: Some cities have become so-called sanctuaries from immigration crackdowns and, elsewhere, from stricter gun laws.
The new local actions on abortion are playing out as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments Wednesday on a case that thrusts abortion, one of America’s most divisive issues, into the middle of the presidential campaign.
The case, a challenge to a Louisiana law that opponents say would leave the state with just one doctor in a single clinic authorized to provide abortions, could limit the scope of the constitutional right to abortion established in 1973 in Roe v. Wade.
Hope Medical Group for Women, the clinic at the heart of the case, sparked the Texas movement to create sanctuary cities for the unborn. Mr. Dickson and others worried that if fewer abortions were allowed in Louisiana because of the new law, the clinic might move across state lines to East Texas, a conservative swath of small towns and ranchland.
“We are living in a nation that tends to throw away life,” said Mr. Dickson, 34, who is traveling the state to rally support for his movement. “This is the time to stand and to do something. If we don’t do something now, then when?”
A majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to Pew Research Center. Yet abortion rights now are facing more scrutiny than ever in the years since the Roe v. Wade decision. Planned Parenthood has described access to abortion as “hanging by a thread.”
“Abortion politics always reflect and transform broader American politics,” said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University and author of “Abortion and the Law in America.” “We’re more polarized on a lot of issues. We’re not in a seeking compromise kind of mood.”
In many parts of the country, access to abortion clinics is decreasing. New laws took effect last year that, if upheld by the courts, could ban most legal abortion in seven states. Last week, the Senate failed to advance two bills that frame abortion as infanticide, forcing vulnerable Democrats into uncomfortable votes and energizing a socially conservative base for Republicans. President Trump has weighed in, pointing to one of the Senate bills and falsely asserting that Democrats favor “executing babies AFTER birth.”
So far, Mr. Dickson has successfully lobbied 12 East Texas communities to create anti-abortion ordinances that would levy fines if an abortion clinic tries to open, though one town later changed its mind. The sanctuary city for the unborn movement is spreading to other parts of Texas, and beyond. Last month in Florida, after a heated meeting, Santa Rosa County commissioners decided to ask voters in November whether to declare the county a “pro-life sanctuary.” In Roswell, N.M., a measure passed that preceded those in Texas.
The notion of creating sanctuary cities of all kinds has been around for several years.
Numerous left-leaning communities across the nation have declared themselves sanctuaries for immigrants, refusing to comply with federal enforcement efforts that have been ramped up since Mr. Trump has been in office.
Dozens of right-leaning municipalities have become Second Amendment sanctuaries, adopting laws or resolutions to hinder the enforcement of gun-control measures such as universal background checks or bans on assault weapons.
Many opponents of sanctuary cities of either kind say they are illegal.
The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged some of the measures on behalf of abortion rights groups, including the Texas Equal Access Fund. And some town leaders, despite holding anti-abortion views themselves, oppose these measures because of the potential financial risk of defending them in court.
Kamyon Connor, executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund — which some of the sanctuary measures label “a criminal organization” — said the ordinances were “political stunts meant to confuse people about their rights.”
Yet new communities continue to pass ordinances and resolutions that create sanctuaries of various kinds as populations in a politically divided nation respond to the feeling that their way of life — their view that deportations are inhumane or their belief that abortion is murder — is under attack.
“There are a lot of things floating around about ‘sanctuary this’ and ‘sanctuary that,’” said Trey Tenery, 50, sitting in the back office of his Victory Guns and Guitar Works store in downtown Lindale. “I think people are kind of putting their foot down about different things they believe in.”
Mr. Tenery supports the creation of the anti-abortion “sanctuary” measures, as do many other residents of Lindale, where white crosses are positioned in graveyard fashion in front of a Catholic church to mark the “213 Texans who die each day from abortion.”
For Mr. Tenery, the building of a metaphoric wall that aims to keep out abortion providers would preserve his values in the same way that he believes a real wall at the Mexican border would. A wall, he said, would protect people from drugs and sex trafficking coming from the Mexican border, which is about an eight-hour drive from Lindale. (The police in Lindale said sex and drug trafficking have not been major issues in the community.)
Other people who supported the sanctuary-city measures in Lindale said they saw the move as a way to take a moral stand against abortion.
“It seems the liberal agenda has gotten so out of hand,” said Andrea Josselet, a Lindale resident who voted for Mr. Trump and called him “the most pro-life president we’ve had.”
Paul Fancher, an engineer from Lindale, opposes abortion for religious reasons, saying, “As a student of the laws of the God of heaven I have discerned that the shedding of innocent blood is something to be concerned with.”
He was disappointed last year when the Texas State Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have made the death penalty possible in abortion cases. Mr. Fancher had contacted Mr. Dickson and asked him to come to Lindale to help organize a push for a measure like the one the pastor had persuaded the community of Waskom to pass in June. Mr. Dickson has since bounced among so many small towns that by the time he arrived in Lindale to address the City Council, he came armed with a blueprint for action.
He carried with him teddy bears that pulse with a recording of an in utero heartbeat and stuffs his pockets with three rubber models of a 12-week-old fetus in various skin tones — props he had carted to other meetings to appeal to the emotions of council members wary of lawsuits.
The night of the Lindale Council’s vote, in mid-February, he and a handful of residents were holding “Choose life for all Lindale babies” signs outside City Hall as council members arrived.
Not everyone in Lindale, situated in Smith County where just over 70 percent of voters supported Mr. Trump in the 2016 election, agrees with this point of view. A 25-year-old woman who did not want to be named “because of the conservative nature of Lindale,” said she voted for Mr. Trump and also said that was happy abortion was an option when she got pregnant four years ago. She wasn’t ready to raise a child.
In conservative East Texas, many young women are stigmatized for seeking reproductive health care, said Sarah Wheat, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. The sanctuary city movement only isolates them, she said.
“Americans don’t want to see people who need access to basic health care, including abortion, targeted like this,” Ms. Wheat said. “This is why abortion is on the ballot in 2020. People are tired of Trump’s anti-abortion rhetoric seeping into their communities.”
That night at City Hall, if abortion-rights supporters were present, they stayed silent. Instead, the room was packed with a mostly white crowd of men and women of all ages, some wearing T-shirts with “Choose Life” messages and one wearing a button that said, “Babies Lives Matter.”
Kayvon Richards, a college student in the audience, opened the meeting with a prayer to God about “this special opportunity we have to make a decision that comes back to you, that stands up for your word, your truth and your values.”
Supporters addressed the Council a few minutes at a time, punctuated by amens from the packed room. They spoke of “sanctioned bloodshed” and “harvesters in the abortion clinics with the lists they need of different body parts.”
Matt Myer had driven to the meeting 85 miles from the city of Wells, where a few nights before he and other City Council members in a single meeting had passed a measure aimed at outlawing homeless encampments as well as ordinances creating a Second Amendment sanctuary city and a sanctuary city for the unborn.
Certain that the city attorney for Wells would advise against passing the measures, Mr. Myer said he and his fellow council members decided not to seek legal advice about their actions.
He said it was the Council’s “obligation to stand up for life and not worry what the attorneys say.” A week later his community would be named as a defendant in the A.C.L.U. lawsuit.
When the Lindale council members returned to the public meeting room after private deliberations, the city attorney announced the measure was so poorly worded it wouldn’t have the effect that supporters wanted. He worried it might be unconstitutional.
Mr. Dickson had come to town with his teddy bears and fetal models seeking an ordinance. Instead, the Council, an all-male body except for one woman, took the advice of its attorney and passed a strongly worded resolution that proclaimed its support for overturning Roe v. Wade and said that “abortion in all stages of pregnancy is the act of taking human life.”
It didn’t include fines or bans. But the mayor looked out at the disappointed crowd and offered reassurance about its intent. “We’re all allies, I think, here,” he said.