Archdiocese sues city over pregnancy counseling notice

Lawsuit, filed in federal court, claims a violation of free speech, religion

  • City Solicitor George Nilson expects the law to hold up in court because it's "like a bill that requires hours of operations."
City Solicitor George Nilson expects the law to hold up in court… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
March 30, 2010|By Brent Jones | brent.jones@baltsun.com

The Archdiocese of Baltimore filed a federal lawsuit against the city Monday, saying a first-in-the-nation ordinance regulating pregnancy counseling centers violates the rights of church members to freedom of speech and religion.

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien said the law, which took effect in January, "is hurting the good people volunteering and giving so much of their resources to come to the help of pregnant women." It requires the centers, some of which are supported by the Catholic Church, to post signs stating that they do not refer women for abortion or birth control.

But proponents - including Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who sponsored the bill last year as president of the City Council - have described the requirement as a matter of public health. A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Maryland, which has accused the centers of giving women misleading information about the risks of abortion and birth control, called the law "just responsible policy."

"It's to ensure women's access to health information they need to make right decisions for themselves," Christine Lyn Diller said.

Officials at the counseling centers say staff members provide accurate information. Lawyers for the archdiocese, who filed the suit in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, say the ordinance unfairly targets four centers that provide needed support and assistance to women and children.

Mark Graber, professor of law and government at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the law appears to favor the city. He said the Supreme Court has made it clear that advertising does not have the same protections as political speech.

"All government is doing here is asking people to tell the truth," Graber said. "And we do this all the time on the cigarette labels. This is simply telling a pregnancy center that you must tell the truth about what you do."

The ordinance requires that a "limited-service pregnancy center" post an easily readable sign, written in English and Spanish, stating that the center does not provide or make referrals for abortion or birth-control services. A center failing to comply within 10 days of being cited could be fined up to $150 a day.

Four Baltimore-area centers provide clothing and food for pregnant mothers, as well as parenting classes, maternity and infant supplies and referrals for prenatal care and adoption.

Thomas J. Schetelich, chairman of the board for the Center for Pregnancy Concerns, said that the ordinance singles out the Catholic Church for its anti-abortion stance. The nonprofit, anti-abortion organization receives donations from religious groups supporting women who plan to take their pregnancies to term and operates three of the four local centers.

"Frankly, we would expect our city government to be supporting our sacrificial efforts rather than trying to hinder," Schetelich said. "We're disappointed that our stand for life draws opposition."

Sean Caine, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said its attorneys are handling the case pro bono.

Debate over the bill last year drew attention from national groups on both sides of the abortion divide. The Montgomery County Council has considered a similar measure.

After the bill passed in November, Rawlings-Blake called it a victory for women's well-being. She referred questions Monday to City Solicitor George Nilson.

Nilson said he anticipated the lawsuit and that the law would stand in court because it simply requires a statement of fact.

"And while you can't make people engage in speech that expresses a point of view," he said, "that's not what the bill does. It's just like a bill that requires hours of operations."

Carol A. Clews, executive director of Center for Pregnancy Concerns, was joined Monday by Schetelich and O'Brien at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. Clews said the three centers see about 1,000 women a year and counsel about 7,000 more over the phone.

They posted the explicit signs at the centers Jan. 4.

"We have many of our clients fill out evaluations after they've been helped," she said. "We do not now or have we ever had complaints from clients about being misled in any way or problems with the services they've received."

The issue was brought to the City Council by Planned Parenthood of Maryland, which expressed disappointment in the lawsuit. Pregnant women, they say, should be told when they are not being given access to all of the options legally available to them.

A report by NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland alleged that crisis pregnancy centers in the state and nationwide tried to deceive clients with false or misleading information.

"This law empowers women by giving them full information up front about what to expect from a limited-service pregnancy center," said Jennifer Blasdell, the organization's executive director. "This provision does not ask a facility to provide or counsel for any services they find objectionable, but only asks them to tell the truth about the nature of their services."

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