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Pro-life group challenging Montgomery Co. sign law in court

A federal judge in Greenbelt has blocked Montgomery County from enforcing one part of a sign requirement for pro-life pregnancy counseling centers while a challenge to the law is being litigated.

Under Judge Deborah K. Chasanow’s ruling, the county can require that the nonprofit centers post a sign telling clients that there is no medical provider on staff. Such a notice supports the county’s “compelling interest” in the health of the center’s clients, Chasanow added.

But the judge faulted the law for compelling the centers to post a notice that the county’s health officer “encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider.”

That requirement is unlikely to pass constitutional muster because the statement is not necessary to achieve the county’s goal of warning women, the judge ruled Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

Chasanow barred Montgomery from enforcing that second requirement pending the outcome of the lawsuit brought by Centro Tepeyac, a Limited Service Pregnancy Resource Center in Silver Spring.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a pro-life litigation group that is representing Centro Tepeyac, said the court “did the right thing.”

“The First Amendment does not have an abortion exception to it,” ADF attorney Matt Bowman said. “Cities and counties cannot take over the walls of pro-life pregnancy centers and require them to tell women that they should go elsewhere.”

But Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal expressed surprise at the ruling.

“I don’t understand the objection to encouraging pregnant women to see a doctor,” said Leventhal, who chairs the council’s Health and Human Services Committee. “I think that’s a good public health practice.”

Limited Service Pregnancy Resource Centers provide information about pregnancy-related services but do not offer or refer women for abortions or artificial birth-control services.

“The [county’s] resolution was evidently intended to ensure that women did not forgo medical treatment that they would otherwise obtain after visiting an LSPRC,” Chasanow wrote.

But the county’s “interest in avoiding such a mistake might be satisfied once women were aware that LSPRCs do not staff a medical professional,” she added. “To the extent that the second portion of the required disclaimer may compel unneeded speech, that statement would not be the least restrictive means of achieving a relevant government interest.”

Under Montgomery County Resolution 16-1252, violations can cost the centers $500 for the first day and $750 per day thereafter.

Leventhal said the council will meet next week with county attorneys to discuss what action to take following Chasanow’s decision.

Chasanow’s ruling followed U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis’ Jan. 28 decision striking down as unconstitutional a Baltimore ordinance that required LSPRC’s to post a sign in their waiting rooms notifying clients that the center “does not provide or make referral for abortion or birth-control services.” The fines for noncompliance in Baltimore were set at $150 per day. The ordinance did not require pro-choice clinics to post notices.

“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,” wrote Garbis, a senior judge who hears cases in Baltimore.

Baltimore has appealed Garbis’ ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Montgomery County Council passed the sign ordinance, Resolution 16-125, on Feb. 2, 2010, after holding a public hearing the prior December.

In a commentary section to the resolution, the council stated that it deemed “a disclaimer for certain pregnancy resources necessary to protect the health of county residents.” The council added it was concerned “clients may be misled into believing that a center is providing medical services when it is not. Clients could therefore neglect to take action (such as consulting a doctor) that would protect their health or prevent adverse consequences, including disease, to the client or the pregnancy.”

Centro Tepeyac filed its federal court challenge May 19.

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