NRL News

Unanimous 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals strikes down Baltimore law targeting pregnancy care centers

by | Jan 5, 2018

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. This decision came down late Friday afternoon. We will have complete coverage of this huge pro-life victory on Monday.

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III

After seven years of litigation, covered extensively by NRL News Today, an unanimous federal court today affirmed a 2016 ruling by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis that a Baltimore ordinance targeting pregnancy care center violates the First Amendment—precisely the position taken by opponents of the ordinance.

“An ordinance passed in 2009 required pregnancy centers that oppose abortion to post a disclaimer in their waiting rooms that they don’t provide or refer people to abortion or birth control services,” according to Robert King.

In an opinion written by Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, and joined by Judges Allyson Duncan and G. Steven Agee, the panel ruled that the ordinance compelled a “politically and religiously motivated group [the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns] to convey a message fundamentally at odds with its core belief and mission.”

The ordinance, “forces the center to utter in its own waiting room words at odds with its foundational beliefs and with the principles of those who have given their working lives to it,” he wrote. “Without proving the inefficacy of less restrictive alternatives, providing concrete evidence of deception, or more precisely targeting its regulation, the city cannot prevail.”

Judge Marvin J. Garbis

Indeed, in a stinging rebuke to the city of Baltimore, the decision directly challenged the city’s contention that the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, a nonprofit Christian organization, misled clients—had been “deceptive.”

“After seven years of litigation and a 1,295-page record before us, the city does not identify a single example of a woman who entered the Greater Baltimore Center’s waiting room under the misimpression that she could obtain and abortion there,” the court wrote.

The battle over the relentless pro-abortion campaign to compel pro-lifers organizations to promote abortion could be coming to a head this year. The Supreme Court has announced it will hear National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, the pro-life challenge to the so-called “Reproductive FACT Act.”

The law was pushed through on a strictly party-line vote from California Democrats and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. As Jay Hobbs wrote, “While it has only been enforced in one jurisdiction—the City of Los Angeles—the law has since served as a template for a 2017 mandate in Hawaii, which would likely be affected by the Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision.”

In targeting over 100 state-licensed medical facilities that offer free ultrasounds, the California law orders the pro-life organizations to prominently post and distribute the following notice.

“California has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services (including all FDA-approved methods of contraception), prenatal care, and abortion for eligible women. To determine whether you qualify, contact the county social services office at [insert the telephone number].”

The penalty for noncompliance is $1,000 for a first-time offense, and $500 for subsequent offenses.

What about pregnancy centers that do not offer free medical services such as ultrasounds? Under the so-called Reproductive FACT Act, they must post the following disclaimer “conspicuously at the entrance to the facility” “in no less than 48-point type”:

“This facility is not licensed as a medical facility by the State of California and has no licensed medical provider who provides or directly supervises the provision of services.”

Similar laws forcing pregnancy centers to post such signage have been struck down in New York City and Baltimore, as well as Austin (TX) and Montgomery County (MD), which eventually was ordered to pay pregnancy centers $330,000 in attorney’s fees.