Judge rules pregnancy center ordinance unconstitutional

Says abortion sign requirement violates free speech rights

January 29, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

A federal judge has struck down the city ordinance requiring faith-based pregnancy counseling centers to tell clients upfront that they won't help them get an abortion.

Baltimore drew national attention 14 months ago with the legislation, sponsored by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake when she was City Council president, that required the centers to post signs saying that they don't refer clients for abortions or birth control.

In a decision issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis wrote that the requirement violates the centers' constitutional right to free speech. Ruling in a lawsuit brought against the city by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore and a counseling center it supports, he declared the ordinance "unenforceable."

"Whether a provider of pregnancy-related services is 'pro-life' or 'pro-choice,' it is for the provider — not the government — to decide when and how to discuss abortion and birth-control method," Garbis wrote. "The Government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, require a 'pro-life' pregnancy-related service center to post a sign."

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien praised the ruling, which he said would allow "the important and compassionate work of these pro-life pregnancy centers to continue without interference from Baltimore City."

In a statement, O'Brien said, "The ruling also upholds the constitutional rights under the First Amendment that protect private citizens such as those who work and volunteer in pregnancy centers from having to convey a government-mandated message," O'Brien said in a statement.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, who sponsored the legislation at the behest of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, said she would not comment.

An official with the Center for Reproductive Rights said in an e-mail Saturday that the group and the City of Baltimore would appeal the ruling.

City Solicitor George Nilson said on Friday that he was not surprised by the judge's decision.

"I really do think this kind of disclosure [required by the ordinance] is limited, straightforward and nonjudgmental," Nilson said. "But the First Amendment is never easy to deal with."

The ordinance, which drew attention from both sides of the abortion divide, requires what it calls "limited-service pregnancy centers" to post signs in English and Spanish. Centers that fail to comply could be fined up to $150 per day.

When the City Council approved the legislation in November 2009, Rawlings-Blake declared it a victory for the well-being of women. Advocates said it would ensure that pregnant women who sought help at a limited-service center were informed of the options legally available to them.

At a hearing in August, city attorneys said the signs protect women who are seeking pregnancy information from being misled by a center that opposes abortion.

Lawyers for the archdiocese said pregnancy counselors should not be forced to provide information about practices that violate their religious beliefs.

The archdiocese supports four centers in the city, which offer pregnant women food, clothing, prenatal classes and adoption counseling.

Officials at the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concern, which operates locations in Charles Village, Canton and Dundalk, say they make explicit to clients what services they do and don't offer.

The center put signs up at its city locations when the ordinance took effect, while arguing in the lawsuit that it violated its right to free speech.

In his decision, Garbis wrote that the city might be able to accomplish its goal in either of two other ways.

The city could, he wrote, "use or modify existing regulations governing fraudulent advertising to combat deceptive advertising practices by limited-service pregnancy centers."

Alternatively, Garbis wrote, the city "could enact a new content-neutral advertising ordinance applicable to noncommercial entities that directly ameliorate the [city's] concerns regarding deceptive advertising."

Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea Siegel and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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