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Landmark: Judge strikes down Baltimore’s anti-pregnancy center law

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal judge has struck down a Baltimore, Md., ordinance that required pregnancy care centers to display signs saying they do not provide abortions or contraceptives or make referrals for those services.

In what is apparently the country’s first court ruling on such an ordinance, judge Marvin Garbis of Baltimore ruled Jan. 28 the city violated the free speech rights of pro-life pregnancy centers.

Care Net — which supports a network of more than 1,100 pregnancy centers nationwide — applauded the decision.

Pregnancy centers “have encountered hostile legislation aimed at shutting them down” for years, Care Net President Melinda Delahoyde said in a written release. “A victory for pregnancy centers is a victory for women facing unplanned pregnancies, women who deserve life-affirming options and abortion alternatives.”

The ruling sends an important signal to cities and states considering legislation patterned after the Baltimore ordinance. Such measures have been introduced in both New York City and the state of Washington.

The Baltimore City Council approved the sign ordinance in a 12-3 vote in November 2009. Then-Mayor Sharon Dixon signed it into law that December. The measure called for a fine of $150 a day for any pregnancy center that did not abide by the requirement.

Austin, Texas, became the second American city to pass such a measure in April 2010.

When Baltimore enacted its ordinance, opponents charged it was discriminatory, since it did not require abortion clinics to post signs indicating what services they do not provide. Many pro-life pregnancy centers offer such free services as pregnancy tests, ultrasound exams, prenatal care, childbirth classes, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, abstinence education, post-abortion counseling and material assistance (clothing, baby supplies, etc.). Abortion clinics typically do not provide many of these services.

In his opinion, Garbis agreed with supporters of the pregnancy care centers, saying the Baltimore ordinance violated the free-speech clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

“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,” Garbis wrote.

“The Ordinance regulates speech,” Garbis said. “[R]equiring the placement of a ‘disclaimer’ sign in the center’s waiting room is, on its face, a form of compelled speech. Moreover, the Ordinance regulates the center’s speech by mandating the timing and content of the introduction of the subjects of abortion and birth-control.”

President George H.W. Bush nominated Garbis to the federal bench. The Senate confirmed Garbis in 1989.

The city of Baltimore and the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) will immediately appeal the decision to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, a CRR spokeswoman said Jan. 31. CRR, a leading abortion rights organization, joined the city in defending the ordinance.

Edwin O’Brien, Roman Catholic archbishop of Baltimore, brought suit against Baltimore’s mayor and city council.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief of Baptist Press.

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