Archbishop Lori praises court for upholding free speech for pregnancy centers

June 27, 2012

 
By Maria Wiering
mwiering@CatholicReview.org

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore called the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals June 27 decision to uphold a lower court’s ruling affirming a Baltimore City pregnancy center’s right to free speech “a major victory for the First Amendment and for those people who seek to live their lives and faith according to it.”

The Richmond, Va.,-based court found in favor of the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns (GBCPC), which was fighting a Baltimore City ordinance requiring it to post certain disclaimers.

“I applaud the court for recognizing that these centers were being targeted for their pro-life views and for sending a strong message to the rest of the nation that these kinds of onerous, discriminatory laws have no place in a nation founded on freedom,” the archbishop said in a statement.

Under Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, a former archbishop of Baltimore, the Archdiocese of Baltimore challenged the 2009 city law, which required pro-life pregnancy centers to post signs stating they do not provide abortion or birth control. The archdiocese and St. Brigid, the parish that hosts a GBCPC pregnancy center, were plaintiffs along with the GBCPC.
 
The archdiocese argued that the signs violated First Amendment rights and unfairly targeted pro-life pregnancy centers, as other centers were not required to post disclaimers for services they did not provide.
 

Carol Clews, GBCPC executive director, said she is “thrilled” about the ruling.

“I hope and pray that this will set a precedent that will reach throughout the nation,” she said. She realizes that the court decision could be appealed, but she’s unsure of the likelihood of that scenario, she said.

The judges ruled 2-1, with Judge Paul V. Niemeyer and Judge G. Steven Agee affirming the lower court’s decision. Judge Robert B. King dissented.

In the affirming opinion, Niemeyer noted that the ordinance compelled the pregnancy center to speak by positing a sign, and in doing so, is participating “in the city’s effort to tell pregnant women that abortions are available elsewhere as a morally acceptable alternative, contrary to the moral and religious beliefs of the center.”

He further wrote that the majority disagreed with the city that the disclaimer fell under “commercial speech,” as the city argued, since the pregnancy center’s services are free.

In his dissent, Judge King included accusations that pro-life pregnancy centers routinely deceive their clients about their services and wrote that “the district court abused its discretion by denying the city the right to conduct discovery” which “short-circuited the analysis that was essential to properly deciding the appropriate level of judicial scrutiny.”

He also disagreed that “commercial speech” relies on economic motive, as the assenting judges argued.
In a separate but similar case, the court also ruled the same day in favor of Centro Tepeyac Women’s Center, a Montgomery County pro-life pregnancy center. 
 

Clews said accusations of deceptive behavior are untrue.

“We pride ourselves on being completely truthful and up front on what we do and what we don’t do,” she said.

The center lists its services on its website, and its homepage includes disclaimer stating it does not provide nor refer for abortions. The center is happy to provide that information, but does not want to be compelled by the city to post written disclaimers, Clews said. The center posted the signs after the law went into effect, and removed them two days later with city permission because the ordinance was being challenged. They sit in Clews’ office to remind her of the clinic’s struggle, she said.

Nancy Paltell, the Maryland Catholic Conference’s associate director for respect for life, said the rulings were “wonderful news for our dedicated and compassionate pregnancy center workers and volunteers.”

“This suit should never have been necessary, but we are quite pleased with the judges’ ruling recognizing the free speech rights and basic religious liberty rights that were needlessly challenged,” she said.

 

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