Judge hears arguments in suit over city pregnancy center law

Archdiocese claims Baltimore restricting protected speech, singling out facilities

August 04, 2010|By Brent Jones, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore City lawyers defended a controversial law in federal court Wednesday that requires crisis pregnancy centers to post notices if they don't refer women for abortion or birth control, as attorneys for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore attacked the measure as a violation of First Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis heard the first day of arguments on a motion to dismiss the archdiocese's challenge to the law, which the City Council passed in November and is the first of its kind in the nation. The law took effect in January, but was put on hold until December once the lawsuit was filed.

Attorneys from the city defended the law during the three-hour hearing, arguing that the signs protect expectant mothers who are seeking pregnancy information from being misled upon entering centers that oppose abortion.

Lawyers for the archdiocese argued that church counselors shouldn't be forced to talk about procedures they disagree with, because any mention of abortion goes against what the church believes. Attorney David Kinkopf said the church was being targeted because of specific services it does not recognize as options, while other organizations were not mandated to offer alternative services, such as adoption.

The church helps run three pregnancy centers in Baltimore.

"It's only about abortion," Kinkopf said. "And it's only about who is opposed to abortion."

But Suzanne Sangree, chief solicitor for the city, said the signs were similar to those that bars must post, stating that they are forbidden to serve alcohol to minors.

"That doesn't mean that they think it is good to sell to minors," she said.

Garbis is expected to rule on the motion in the coming months.

He said during the hearing that he believes people should know what services pregnancy centers offer and compared the law to the recently passed national legislation requiring credit companies to disclose interest information on long-term minimum payment plans.

"The sign doesn't say anything that is against [the church's] religious beliefs," Garbis said.

The ordinance requires that all limited-service pregnancy centers post an easily readable sign written in English and Spanish.

A center failing to comply within 10 days of being cited by city inspectors could be fined up to $150 per day. The centers generally provide clothing and food for pregnant mothers, as well as parenting classes, maternity and infant supplies and referrals for prenatal care and adoption.

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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