“Does a grocery store have to post a sign stating it doesn’t offer apparel?” asks Pam Cobern, the executive director of Austin LifeCare, a crisis pregnancy center in Austin, Texas. Then why, she insists, does her pro-life office have to post a notice stating it does not provide “medical services” such as abortion?
Austin LifeCare is the latest in a string of pro-life pregnancy resource centers across the country required to hang a sign that could potentially turn customers away. The city of Austin passed a 2012 ordinance stating that LifeCare, along with three other local pregnancy centers, must post a black and white notice reading they do not offer “medical services.” Although not officially stated, these “services” are meant to alert visitors the center does not offer abortions or birth control. Refusal to comply with these regulations can result in fines up to $450, according to official court documents.
Cobern explains why she believes the ruling is unconstitutional.
“The sign is unnecessary,” she said. “It's speaking for a client before we speak with them.”
Austin City Councilmember Bill Spelman introduced an almost identical ordinance in 2010 that explicitly used the words “abortion” and “birth control,” making it clear to visitors what services they would not receive at the center during their unplanned pregnancies. Cobern and LifeCare sued the city in October 2011, arguing the ruling infringed upon the center’s free speech. They ultimately succeeded in seeing the law repealed. But, legislators used a little cutting and editing and, some claim, the help of pro-choice organizations, in the hopes of pushing the new 2012 ruling through court.
Cece Heil, Senior Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, claims the city’s redrafting is underhanded.
“They tweak it every time,” Heil said. “They think, ‘what's it gonna take to pass court's discretion?’”
Even with the ruling’s omission of the words “abortion” and “birth control,” LifeCare insists the revised 2012 ordinance is unlawful.
A public interest lawyer from the Jubilee Campaign’s Law of Life Project, Sam Casey, is the lead counsel for Austin LifeCare. He identifies the sign policy as viewpoint discrimination, for it does not apply to abortion clinics. Additionally, he argues it is government mandated speech.
“It’s not even what the sign says,” Casey explained. “It’s that it’s making a private actor say something the government wants to say, not what the actor wants to say.”