Pro-life victory for Baltimore: pregnancy center sign ordinance deemed ‘unconstitutional’
BALTIMORE, MD, January 31, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – U.S. District Judge Marvin J Garbis ruled last week that the law requiring pro-life pregnancy centers to post signs stating they do not refer for abortions or birth-control is “unconstitutional.”
The ruling is a major victory for Baltimore pregnancy centers and the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore that challenged the 2009 ordinance earlier last year.
Originally approved in November 2009, the ordinance stated that a pro-life pregnancy center must “provide its clients and potential clients with a disclaimer substantially to the effect that the center does not provide or make referral for abortion or birth-control services.”
The Archdiocese of Baltimore, with representation from Gallagher, Evelius and Jones firm in Baltimore, challenged the ruling in August 2010, arguing that such a law was a violation of First Amendment rights and unfairly targeted pro-life pregnancy centers while not requiring signage for pro-abortion centers.
The lawsuit also contended that the city’s ordinance required pregnancy centers to state falsely that they do not provide birth-control services. The suit said that abstinence education and natural family planning are both “medically recognized means of birth control.”
In a 29-page opinion, Judge Garbis wrote: “The Court holds that the Ordinance violates the Freedom of Speech Clause of Article I of the Constitution of the United States and is 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 methods.”
Thus far, the signs were never posted because the city of Baltimore agreed to await the outcome of the court case, the Baltimore Catholic Review reported. The ordinance would have enforced a $150 fine for pregnancy centers that did not post such a sign.
Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of Baltimore, who took an active part in the court challenge and proceedings, said (http://www.archbalt.org/news-events/press-releases/court-decision.cfm) the court ruling was “a clear victory both for pregnant women in need of assistance and for First Amendment principles we treasure in a free society.”
Pro-life pregnancy centers in Baltimore, which include one housed in the St. Brigid Catholic Church, are an “integral part” in the aid provided to pregnant women, said the archbishop.
“In Baltimore, these centers assist thousands of women every year who are trying to embrace the gift of life in their unborn children. And this ruling allows the important and compassionate work of these pro-life pregnancy centers to continue without interference from Baltimore City which sought to target these centers because they are pro-life.”
David W. Kinkopf, an attorney with Gallagher, Evelius and Jones, who represented Archbishop O’Brien in an August hearing on the issue, said the judge “got it right” and the ruling was a “great victory” for pro-life pregnancy centers and the Freedom of Speech, reported the Baltimore Catholic Review (http://www.catholicreview.org/subpages/storyarchnew.aspx?action=9410).
“We think the judge got it right when he basically said there’s no place for the government to single specific speakers out for unfair speech regulation,” Kinkopf said. “The kind of speech these pregnancy centers are engaged in is not commercial speech -it’s deeply personal, moral and very important speech that deserves the full protection of the First Amendment.”
Kinkopf expressed optimism that the ruling would have a national impact as other jurisdictions consider similar legislation.
New York City is currently facing a similar bill. Edward Mechmann, a lawyer for Archdiocese of New York, who works for the Family Life/Respect Life Office on public policy issues, said the Baltimore court decision is significant for “all pro-lifers across the nation, particularly here in New York.”
“The essential structure and premise of New York’s Intro 371 is identical to the Baltimore law” said Mechmann, “sign and disclaimer requirements compelling speech by pregnancy centers that do not promote abortion, a lack of viewpoint neutrality that is designed to ‘disfavor’ only those centers that do not promote abortion, and a complete lack of any proof that there is a pattern of systematic — or any — deception being practiced by these centers here in New York.”
“In effect, the Baltimore decision drives a stake through the heart of Intro 371,” said Mechmann. Now the New York city council has to consider serious questions posed. “Will you persist in passing a law that you now know to be unconstitutional? Or will you fulfill your oath of office to support and uphold the Constitution of the United States?”