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City of Austin Agrees to Put Harassing Ordinance Against Austin LifeCare on Hold

by | Nov 12, 2011

By Dave Andrusko

Responding to a lawsuit filed five days ago, the city of Austin, Texas, today agreed to temporarily put on hold an ordinance that forces pro-life pregnancy centers to post signs in English and Spanish declaring that they do not provide abortions, abortion referrals, or other services. Centers that do not post the signs faced financial penalties and possible contempt of court charges.

Three pro-life organizations– the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), the Texas Center for the Defense of Life (TCDL), and Jubilee Campaign’s Law of Life Project (JC-LOLP)—went to bat for Austin LifeCare, challenging the  ordinance on First Amendment grounds, the basis on which similar harassment ordinances have been struck down.

With the parties’ agreement Federal District Court Judge Lee Yeakel ordered the case to be stayed at least until February 3, 2012, when the parties will provide a status update to the court. That agreement also puts the lawsuit on hold.

When the lawsuit was filed October 6 ADF Legal Counsel Matt Bowman said “Pregnancy centers, which offer real help and hope to women, shouldn’t be punished by political allies of the abortion industry.” He added, “Attacks such as this ordinance are an ideologically motivated attempt to distract from the growing national scandals in the abortion industry. For years, abortionists have preyed on women and girls to generate profits. Now, pro-abortion politicians are trying to give women fewer choices.”

This morning TCDL President, Greg Terra said, “We are thankful to the City that it will take a closer look at its ordinance, and that in the meantime Austin LifeCare can continue to offer real help and hope to women without posting the City’s message.”

JC-LOLP’s General Counsel, Sam Casey, Austin LifeCare’s lead trial counsel in the case, said,  “We applaud the City of Austin for finally answering in Court today our letters sent to its City Attorney in April and August asking the City to suspend its enforcement against our client and consider repealing this facially unconstitutional Ordinance, particularly when there is no evidence that any pregnancy resource center in Austin is doing anything but freely providing a multitude of pregnancy services to women and men who are faced with an unintended pregnancy.”

At the urging of NARAL, in April 2010 the Austin City Council passed an ordinance to restrict the operations of what it calls “Limited Service Pregnancy Centers,” facilities that help pregnant women carry their babies to term without offering abortions, referrals to abortionists, or so-called “comprehensive birth control services.”

The first failure to post two black and white signs saying what they do not provide is punishable by a minimum $250 fine; a minimum fine of $350 is issued for the second offense and a minimum $450 fine for the third.

As is always the case with such measures, the ordinance does not require centers performing or referring for abortions to post any kind of signs about services that they do not offer. The fines only apply to individuals or organizations that primarily provide counseling information about pregnancy services or options.

The agreement is the latest in a series of positive developments—at least in court—for women helping centers. In January federal Judge Marvin J. Garbis struck down a similar Baltimore ordinance, followed by an initial injunction in March from  Judge Deborah Chasanow against an ordinance in Montgomery County, Maryland. In July U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley completed the legal trifecta by issuing a temporary injunction, blasting the New York City Council for passing a law he called “offensive to free speech principles.”

All these setbacks have not stopped the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from targeting the pro-life“First Resort,” under the guise of preventing “false or misleading advertising practices.” The ordinance has been sent to Mayor Ed Lee for his signature.

Nor has it stopped various state affiliates of NARAL from producing “reports” alleging “deception and misinformation.”

Fortunately, judges such as Judges Garbis and Pauley have issued ringing denunciations of these blatant attempts to muzzle free speech.

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