Friday, August 17, 2012

City's pregnancy center law gets new hearing

(Baltimore Sun) A federal appeals court has granted a new hearing in a case challenging whether Baltimore can require faith-based pregnancy counseling centers to post signs saying they don't offer abortion or birth control advice and services.

The decision filed Wednesday allows a rehearing before the full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., voiding a decision made in June by a panel of three judges from the same court.

The panel had voted 2-1 to uphold a lower court's opinion that the ordinance to require signs was unconstitutional, violating the free-speech rights of the pregnancy centers. The 4th Circuit gave no reason for granting the rehearing, scheduled for Dec. 6.

City officials eager to present their case said this week's decision gives them confidence that the law is on their side, while Catholic leaders said they will prevail despite a new hearing.

"Every judicial review of this onerous law has resulted in the same finding: namely, that it is a violation of these centers' First Amendment rights, including freedom of speech and religious liberty," the Archdiocese of Baltimore said in a statement. "We have every reason to think that another fair review of this ordinance will yield the same result."

Suzanne Sangree, Baltimore chief solicitor, said it is rare for the 4th Circuit to grant a rehearing.

"The grant of a rehearing gives us new hope that the City's consumer protection ordinance will be upheld," said City Solicitor George Nilson in a statement.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sponsored legislation for the 2009 ordinance when she was City Council president. It was challenged in court by St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church, the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns and then-Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien.

Catholic leaders argue that the ordinance is an attack on anti-abortion beliefs.

"This law unfairly targets pro-life pregnancy centers which provide critical resources to women in crisis pregnancies who seek to carry their baby to term," the Archdiocese of Baltimore said in its statement.

City officials say the pregnancy centers mislead consumers by insinuating they provide certain services, and they argued that they're just trying to protect consumers by requiring honest advertising.

"The city simply aims to prevent women who seek abortion or comprehensive contraception from being delayed in accessing these time-sensitive health services by going to a center that does not provide those services," Nilson said. "Delay and deception creates real harm to women's health. Women seeking parenting support, religious counseling or the other services offered at limited-services centers should go to the centers; however, the city seeks to remedy the confusion and deception created by deceptive publicity which causes women to mistakenly go to the centers."

Mayoral spokesman Ian T. Brennan said: "Mayor Rawlings-Blake fully supported this law in order to protect women in Baltimore — plain and simple."

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which advocates for women's services, said the faith-based pregnancy counseling centers advertise themselves as clinics that offer reproductive health services, but it contends that they are nonmedical organizations that attempt to talk women out of abortions and birth control.

"We're thrilled with the court's decision," said Stephanie Toti, senior staff attorney for the center. "We think this is an important case for protecting the rights of women on truthful information about reproductive health services."

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