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State lawmaker distributed book calling for resistance to “unjust” laws

The book was written by an anti-abortion minister who signed a statement in 1993 justifying the murder of an abortion provider.

State Rep. Ernie Yarbrough in a campaign photo.
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This story was originally published on the Alabama Reflector.

After Alabama lawmakers finished their work on June 6, the last day of the 2023 regular legislative session, state representatives got a present – a book that called for the resistance to “unjust” or “tyrannical” laws.

Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, R-Trinity, distributed signed copies of a book called “The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates,” written by Rev. Matthew Trewhella, a minister who signed a statement in 1993 justifying the murder of an abortion provider.

Trewhella signed the book with “May the magistrates of Alabama have courage to do right by Christ!” A note from Yarbrough said “I hope this signed copy is a blessing!”

The book argues that when a higher authority, such as a monarch or government, enacts unjust or tyrannical laws, lower-level officials have a moral obligation to resist and defy those laws. The doctrine says lesser magistrates, such as local officials, judges, or regional governors, must interpose themselves between the actions of the higher authority and the people they govern.

Trewhella is also the founder of the Missionaries to the Preborn, an anti-abortion group based in Milwaukee known for staging protests outside of abortion clinics.

In 1993, Trewhella signed a so-called “Defensive Action Statement” written by radical anti-abortion minister Paul Hill, which said anti-abortion extremist Michael Griffin was justified for killing Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida.

A year later, Hill murdered Dr. John Britton, who replaced Gunn at the Pensacola abortion clinic, as well as Britton’s security escort. The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated Trewhella and others who had signed the 1993 statement but did not bring charges. Trewhella said he was not involved in Britton’s murder and did not sign a second “Defensive Action Statement” on Hill’s behalf.

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In 1994, the Virginian-Pilot reported that Trewhella was conducting seminars on how to raise militias that brought together those who oppose “abortion, gun control and taxes.”

In an interview during the special session earlier this month, Yarbrough said that the book was meant to encourage people to look at the authority given to civil magistrates, whether politicians or judges, “to recognize all authority comes from God, and so we have a responsibility to enforce boundaries.”

“The idea in America that just because someone is in a certain position, whatever that position is, doesn’t mean that they are above being held accountable, to the oaths that they swore into law, that they are required to defend,” he said.

Alabama enacted a near-total ban on abortion in 2022, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down federal abortion rights protections in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center.

Kelsea McLain, deputy director at the Yellowhammer Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for abortion access, said in an interview last week that she views the fringe concept as a way to insert “extreme evangelical faith” into politics.

“In a way, that erodes the separation of church and state completely, and instead mandates or forces adherence to a version of Christianity that — I would say — the majority of people, especially Christians, are not comfortable with or familiar with,” she said.

McLain called it an effort to get the state government to enact laws and policies that “violate our Constitution, that violate our human rights and are instead focused on a very narrow and very, not popular understanding of the Bible and what the Christian faith dictates.”

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Six representatives from both parties confirmed receiving a copy: Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur; Rep. Phillip Ensler, D-Montgomery; Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville; Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery and Rep. TaShina Morris, D-Montgomery. Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, said on the House floorFriday that he had a copy of the book on his desk.

“It was a very interesting read, but there was a lot of propaganda in it,” Jackson said.

Jackson could not be reached for a comment.

Garrett said that a staffer had compiled his mail and paperwork for him to take home, and that he had seen the book then.

“It was among that, but I haven’t had a chance to read it,” Garrett said.

Yarbrough sponsored a bill in the regular session earlier this year that would have allowed the state to charge women who have abortions with homicide. The bill, which did not come out of committee, is one of several so-called “equal protection bills” backed by far-right anti-abortion groups like Operation Save America.

McLain said that the rise of right-wing ideology based on Trewhella’s teachings rose to popularity during the COVID lockdowns, which showcased a clear ideological divide between those who viewed lockdowns as a temporary measure, and those who viewed lockdowns as an infringement of their rights.

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“This is not just an Alabama-born movement,” she said. “But I think that there’s these kinds of branch politicians in a lot of states, especially southern states, that are slowly trying to push this forward in their state governments, or even in their local governments.”

For example, she said local governments in Texas and New Mexico have passed ordinances establishing anti-abortion “sanctuary cities.”

“I think this is a part of a greater trend to try to insert this type of law and to the various lower levels of government, to try and influence things when it really isn’t constitutional — or possible,” she said.

Yarbrough pushed back on the notion that the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates promotes violence. He said that Trewhella’s book could potentially have prevented the Holocaust from happening.

“That book would have prevented people like Hitler from committing murder, because people would have said to Adolf Hitler, ‘there’s a higher law to which you are held accountable, and that’s the laws of God’” Yarbrough said.

He said that starting in the 20th century, a century he described as marked by “atheism, humanism, and men being the measure of all things,” violence was on the rise because people did not “adhere to the principles.”

Alander is a journalist based in Montgomery, and he reports on government, policy and healthcare. He previously worked for the Red & Black, Georgia's student newspaper, and Kaiser Health News, where he covered community health workers' successful efforts to vaccinate refugees in an Atlanta suburb. He is a Tulane and Georgia alumnus with a two-year stint in the U.S. Peace Corps.

Alabama Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alabama Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Brian Lyman for questions: [email protected]. Follow Alabama Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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