By Peter J. Smith

BALTIMORE, Maryland, March 30, 2010 ( – The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore has filed a legal challenge to the city of Baltimore’s ordinance that requires pro-life pregnancy centers to post on their doors that they do not offer or refer for abortions or birth control services.

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien declared on March 29 that the archdiocese was filing suit in U.S. District Court or the District of Maryland, saying that the law violates First Amendment protections.

O’Brien blasted the city’s regulations, which require a $150 per day fine for failing to post the signs, as “a clear violation of these centers’ constitutional rights to free speech and their free exercise of religion.”

Archbishop O’Brien announced the federal lawsuit at a news conference on Monday held at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in Canton, which hosts one of three crisis pregnancy centers operated by Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. (GBCP).

Archbishop O’Brien said the ordinance “runs directly counter to Maryland’s conscience clause, which protects the rights of Maryland’s citizens to refuse to provide or refer for abortions.”

“It is based on their moral and religious beliefs that these centers do not provide or refer for abortions,” he said.

The Baltimore City Council passed the ordinance back in November, which then went into effect in January.

The archdiocese’s suit also accuses Baltimore of enacting a law with viewpoint discrimination, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional. It cites the fact that the city’s ordinance “targets for speech regulation only one side of a contentious public, political debate,” but not abortion providers.

The lawsuit also contends that the city’s ordinance requires pregnancy centers to state falsely that they do not provide birth-control services. The suit says that abstinence education and natural family planning are both “medically recognized means of birth control.”

The suit names Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the City Council, Interim City Health Commissioner Olivia Fallow, and City Health Department as defendants.

Baltimore’s WJZ television reports that O’Brien believes the city’s ordinance deliberately targets the Catholic Church for its pro-life stance, by making crisis pregnancy centers publicize what services they do not offer – a requirement which many have noted that other businesses and even abortion providers are not required to do.

“I have never heard of a private institution, groups being told that they must advertise what they don’t do under financial penalty. I think it’s discriminatory,” O’Brien told WJZ.

Lawyers from the Gallagher, Evelius and Jones firm in Baltimore are representing the Archdiocese pro bono to overturn the law.

Shortly after the ordinance was passed last year, Care Net President Melinda Delahoyde denounced the bill as “nonsensical,””unwarranted,” and “unconstitutional” and even defamatory to crisis pregnancy centers by implying that they are not forthright about the services they provide to women and girls in need of information and support.

She added that while the nation’s average abortion rate had decreased to 19.4 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age in 2005, according to the Guttmacher Institute, abortions in Maryland had steadily risen to 31.5 abortions per 1,000 women in 2005 – an increase of eight percent since 1992.