Debbie Chaves knew pro-lifers had shown up in force the moment she drove up to the Colorado State Capitol in Denver.
"All the parking lots were full," she tells Citizen. "All the spaces on the street were full—for block after block. I had to park five blocks away and walk to the building."
Chaves didn't mind one bit. As president of Colorado Family Action (CFA)—the state's family policy council, affiliated with Focus on the Family—she'd hoped for a big turnout for a prayer rally against the Reproductive Health Freedom Act, a bill that would have been disastrous to the state's pro-life laws. She just didn't know how many people to expect—especially since the rally had been put together on less than 24 hours' notice.
At the end of her walk on the afternoon on April 15—in the middle of Holy Week—Chaves got what she'd been hoping for. And then some.
"When I turned the corner to the west side of the Capitol, the steps of the building were just loaded with people," she says. "There were expected to be a couple hundred. By the time it ended, we were counting over a thousand. People took their young children out of school to bring them. It was the most amazing feeling to see all of them there."
The rapidly mobilized rally was the culmination of two weeks of whirlwind activity. On March 31, state Sens. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, and Jeanne Nicholson, D-Georgetown, introduced the measure, SB 175, and Senate leaders fast-tracked it for passage.
"We hadn't heard anything about a bill like this being introduced prior to the session," says CFA Vice President Jessica Haverkate. "There was no inkling of it."
But it didn't take long for Chaves, Haverkate and other pro-life leaders to see what they were up against: A bill which, if passed, would be the most radical abortion law in the U.S., and the first sally from abortion activists to reverse the national trend toward pro-life policies on the state level.
In a nutshell, SB 175 said any "individual"—of any age—has a right to "services, procedures, supplies, products, devices or information related to human sexuality, contraception, pregnancy, abortion or assisted reproduction."
Which would be the end of any laws deemed to interfere with that "right"—both those already in existence and those that might be passed in the future.
"That would have major ramifications for parental consent and regulations on the abortion industry that we have on the books," Haverkate says. "It would apply to things like how your children are being taught (about) sex in schools, because they have a 'right' to this information, so abstinence-only education would be prohibited under this bill.
"We couldn't pass ultrasound laws. We couldn't pass clinic-regulation laws. We couldn't pass late-term abortion laws. We could never pass laws that would protect people from the Kermit Gosnells of the world."
SB 175 had to be stopped.
Stepping Into the Fire
Chaves, who's lived in Colorado for 23 years, had been active in state politics for some time—ever since she'd taken her seven children to join her to volunteer at the local level.
"We thought we would find a large number of Christians volunteering too, because life and marriage were part of the platform of the party we chose to volunteer with, but that was not what we found," she says. "We were quite shocked. But that motivated me to become even more involved."
Chaves began working with pastors and candidates who shared biblical values, moving people of faith to action in the public square. In 2012, she began working with Focus on the Family's sister organization, CitizenLink, on a voter-outreach project, then stayed on to build relationships between pastors and CFA. In the process, she participated in the search for a new CFA president.
"Frankly, I was helping to look for somebody else to do it; I didn't think it was going to be me. But when they asked me, I prayed, talked to my family, and got confirmation to take the position."
That meant stepping right into the fire. Her first day on the job was April 1, 2014—the day after the Reproductive Health Act was introduced.
"It was an intense way to start, but I am so excited when there's something intense going on, because that's when godly values shine the brightest," Chaves says. "I always say the Lord is at work, so I don't get discouraged even when drastic things like this happen. I get encouraged because it's a chance for godly principles to advance."
Chaves wasn't starting from scratch. She had her own experience in the state to draw upon. She also had Haverkate, a lifelong Coloradan who'd been with CFA since she graduated from college in 2006.
"Jessica was a big help," Chaves says. "She's been at the Capitol and has great relationships with elected officials, including those on the other side of the aisle from our values. She carries herself with courage and with a gentle spirit as she talks to them, so she's very well respected."
When Haverkate filled legislators in about what SB 175 would do, she got a strong reaction.
"When a lot of them heard," she tells Citizen, "they were in complete shock."
CFA didn't have to spread the word alone, though. Other pro-life groups—and church leaders—were doing the same.
"It was incredible to see the number of people who came out against this bill," Haverkate says. "All of the pro-life groups, all the groups that had anything to do with parental rights and authority—people were outraged that their ability to raise their children was being ripped away from them. (We had) women's groups, moms' groups, libertarian groups, pastors and churches coming out of the woodwork.
"It was really exciting to find groups that we had never worked with—groups we didn't find out were advocating against this bill until later in the process."
Of all the allies rising in opposition to SB 175, the most prominent and influential was the Catholic Church—especially Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila.
"Archbishop Aquila was very proactive, very articulate about family values and what the Bible says about life and marriage," Chaves says. "He had been speaking about them already for some time. So for him to put out a clarion call to take a stand on this issue was not uncommon and was well received among the Catholic churches in the area."
Then there was the Colorado Catholic Conference and its executive director, Jenny Kraska—who, Chaves says, "did a lot of the legwork" in organizing the opposition.
"We realized how bad (the bill) was right away, but to try to convince a legislature and a governor who would be inclined to support this measure, I knew we were fighting an uphill battle," Kraska tells Citizen. "We had to move quickly to alert our networks and gather people to testify."
SB 175 moved swiftly toward an April 10 hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. But the signs indicated it would not have easy passage.
"We had a great response from our people," Kraska says. "A lot of them showed up at that hearing."
Among those testifying was Natalie Hattenbach, a mother of three young children and a third-generation pro-lifer.
"I've always been involved in the pro-life movement," Hattenbach tells Citizen. "My mom was a crisis-pregnancy counselor, and so was my grandma. I also volunteer at the Lighthouse Women's Center in Denver, right across the street from Planned Parenthood, doing crisis-pregnancy counseling."
When she got the word on SB 175, Hattenbach and others at her church—St. Mary's Parish in Littleton—decided to do their part, showing up at Senate hearings and letting their views be known.
"It can be very intimidating to testify, with the committee members sitting up above," she says. "But I felt emboldened. I felt like the state was stepping in to create a barrier between my kids and me, and other parents and theirs. There were so many people on our side who had been speaking out, and I felt like I was in very good company."
The bill got through the committee by one vote, 4-3. Then the pro-lifers turned up the heat.
Aquila sent out a call to prayer and action, urging his audience to contact their senators. CFA and others did the same.
"We were focusing on certain senators, sending calls and emails into their districts to have their constituents contact them," Haverkate says. "We were flooding their phone lines. We had legislators telling us their voicemail (boxes) were filling up within a matter of minutes."
On April 14, senators scheduled SB 175 for action on the floor—the very next day. Aquila immediately issued a call for a prayer event on the steps of the Capitol at 3 p.m. April 15. "This is last-minute, and it's certain to involve some Holy Week sacrifices," he said, "but I'm convinced that moments like this are far more important than we can possibly realize."
It was a message many took to heart.
Waiting for a Shepherd
What struck Chaves first when she saw the crowd on the Capitol steps was its size. On further examination, she was just as struck by its diversity. They ranged from young to old, with many families—including many children—in the mix.
"It was not just one demographic that was touched by this issue," she says. "We had such a wide array—youth, high schoolers, parents, empty-nesters, married, single, businessmen, members of different church bodies."
And all those people came in the spirit of prayer. "Archbishop Aquila had a small battery-operated megaphone," Chaves recalls. "When he talked, there was a hush in downtown Denver at the middle of the day. You could hear his voice all the way to the back of the crowd. They were waiting for a shepherd to lead them to stand up for what is right, and they got it."
The prayer event lasted just half an hour. But afterward, many of the people headed toward the Senate gallery to show their support for life.
"As we walked in, everybody behaved wonderfully," she says. "Even the young children—their manners were impeccable. You could see a lot of moms and dads together. It was an amazing witness."
Soon the gallery was full. Then an overflow room was opened, and also full. Then the hallway.
Those who had pro-life T-shirts were told by the sergeant at arms to turn them inside out, which they did. But everyone knew who they were and why they were there.
"It was quite a tense environment," Chaves says. "You could tell those who supported the bill were uncomfortable; they would glance up at the gallery, then quickly look away. They didn't want to make eye contact. But those who opposed the bill were making eye contact, and several of them came up into the gallery to thank us for coming."
The tension wouldn't break quickly. Though the vote was expected that day, two senators got sick and left early. Sometime between 6 and 7 p.m., the Senate closed shop for the day.
There'd been no time to organize a second-day rally, but on April 16, large numbers of pro-lifers showed up once again. Their patience was rewarded.
Word got out that support for SB 175 was cracking. Even one senator who voted for the bill in committee—John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins—let it be known the public outcry had changed his mind. "I'm … listening to folks that are reaching out to me," he later told a local news station.
The bill was procedurally killed before it could get a vote—and though the Senate didn't adjourn until early May, there was no doubt at the time that SB 175 had been defeated.
"It was a jubilant, jubilant moment," Chaves says. "The one statement people kept making was, 'This is the hand of the Lord.' We had a governor who would have signed that bill. We were outnumbered in the House and Senate. Yet the hand of God moved on the hearts of people."
To Haverkate, the victory takes on national significance because it happened in Colorado—a political swing state, and one where pro-lifers have often been at a disadvantage.
"On the issue of life, Planned Parenthood and NARAL have an immense amount of power and money, and they control what legislation looks like," Haverkate says. "I think families in Colorado, while they very much care about these issues, are home raising their kids and going to church and holding jobs and volunteering and enjoying our beautiful state. They tend not to hear a lot about what's going on at the Capitol.
"But they heard about this bill. It shocked the legislators who were friendly with us. They said they'd never seen anything like this response, and they were so excited to see the outpouring of support they got.
"It's the biggest win by far I've seen in my years at CFA. We're calling it an Easter miracle."