Dana Yates / Daily Journal
Parent Carlos Santamaria holds a white sheet in front of graphic pictures of fetuses on the truck owned by pro-life activist Ross Foti. Foti parks the car in front of the church every morning when parents are dropping their children off at school.
A group of parents fed up with driving their children past large graphic images of aborted fetuses on the way to St. Matthew’s Catholic School have begun holding sheets in the parking lot as a way to protect young eyes.
The parents are frustrated that pro-life activist Ross Foti parks his A-frame truck with posters of aborted fetuses on Notre Dame Avenue while attending morning mass. Parents are required by the school to use the small public street to drop their children every morning. Foti will not cover the images or park elsewhere despite requests from the school, church and parents.
Freedom of speech protects Foti. He won lawsuits protecting his right to protest several years ago. The church has the right to prohibit him from parking in its private parking lot. The small, one-way Notre Dame Avenue, however, is a public street owned by the city of San Mateo and officials are considering ways to transfer the property.
Parents are fed up.
"I have a first-grader who I think doesn’t need to see a murder scene every day on the way to school,” said Lynne Santamaria, one of the women behind the sheet idea.
Santamaria regularly stands in the parking lot between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. holding poles attached to white bed sheets in front of the graphic images. Parents in a long line of cars on Notre Dame Avenue clapped, gave the thumbs up sign and personally thanked the group yesterday morning. Parents have spent months trying to get the church to do something about the disturbing truck.
But both the church and school have their hands tied by Foti’s First Amendment rights.
Foti, 72, drives a white truck with large posters of what he describes as aborted fetuses affixed to the outside. Some contend the posters are actually of stillborn babies because they appear larger than the average aborted fetus. Foti has parked his car in front of the church 14 of the first 16 days of school and does the same outside Planned Parenthood five days a week for approximately three hours a day.
Foti did not return two phone calls for comment Thursday. In a previous interview with the Daily Journal, Foti said he is following "God’s law” and "helping” others. He claims a long list of children he has saved and believes all abortion is wrong, even in the case of rape and incest.
His right to protest has been upheld in the state Court of Appeals.
Parents feel they are stuck between upholding a contractual obligation to the school — in which they were asked at the beginning of the year to only use Notre Dame Avenue to drop their children off at school — and parental responsibility.
Parents were asked to sign contracts this year agreeing to use Notre Dame Avenue to drop their kids off at school. The agreement between the school and parents is the result of Aragon neighbors who complained about the traffic and parking problems on the streets surrounding the school. Earlier this year, the church submitted an expansion proposal and recently held a second neighborhood meeting to address residents’ concerns.
Still, some parents choose to park on neighboring streets to avoid Foti’s car.
"It just reaches a point where your conscience can’t let you put up with it anymore.” said parent Carlos Santamaria. "It’s terrorism at our school and we’re not taking it.”
Meanwhile, the pressure is building on school officials.
"In the past it was once or twice a week. Now, it’s every day,” said Principal Ken Boegel. "What it comes down to is that I don’t have the power to stop it.”
Boegel, Rev. Anthony McGuire and parents met with Foti in May. Foti told the group he would cover the posters if McGuire agreed to preach every Sunday about abortion and if parents would join him while picketing in front of San Mateo’s Planned Parenthood.
"I feel he is making us do his bidding. I don’t feel it is appropriate to blackmail,” McGuire said. "While [the posters] may be helpful in certain circumstances, here they are actually turning some off to his message.”
Parents don’t understand why he wants to push the anti-abortion message on fellow Catholic parishioners and their elementary school children. Parents and teachers agree the images frighten children. Some parents play games with their kids to make them look away while they past the posters and others grimace while their children hide their faces and shriek.
"He’s here to stalk us. We feel harassed and bullied,” said parent Claire Grant.
If Foti has the legal right to park his truck than parents have the same right to hold white sheets in front of that truck, reasons Santamaria. The parents take extra precautions not to touch his truck.
Teachers deal with the ramifications in the classroom.
"They are jumpy, confused and scared. They don’t feel safe,” said second-grade teacher Mary Downs. "They come into the class and they think he’s a baby killer.”
Parents have lodged complaints with the city. San Mateo Police have only been called to the school once, on Sept. 5, but many more complaints began filing into the City Attorney Shawn Mason’s office last year. The city is familiar with Foti who regularly attracts attention on Palm Avenue by parking his car in front of Planned Parenthood.
While researching the situation at the school, Mason discovered the city actually owns Notre Dame Avenue. Realizing that "there is no public value to the property,” the city is considering selling the one-block street to the church. The city is having the street appraised. It is unclear how much the city would sell the street for or if they could donate it, Mason said.
"I’m not prepared to say it’s illegal for the city to donate the property. There are legal issues,” Mason said.
The church is also doing its due diligence.
"Each solution has it’s consequences,” McGuire said.
The city is researching what can be done about Foti’s presence on Palm Avenue. Mason would not disclose details.
The likelihood of ridding the city of Foti, a Belmont resident, is slim.
"It’s unlikely we’ll get to a point where we can make him go away,” Mason said. "As disturbing as the images are they are not considered obscene.”
Dana Yates can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.