“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 They ultimately succeeded in seeing the law repealed.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.”
The city of Austin refutes these claims, insisting the government offers less protection to commercial speech and therefore if Austin LifeCare’s language is false or misleading, it may be regulated. In their trial brief, Spelman’s staff argues crisis pregnancy centers have a “tendency to mislead women,” “often provide them inaccurate medical and legal advice” and give an “outward appearance of being medical clinics.”
In Austin’s drafting of both the 2010 and 2012 ordinances against Austin LifeCare, Bart Waxman, Casey’s co-counsel at Law of Life Project, provides material to suggest the local National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws branch, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, played a significant role in the ordinances against Austin LifeCare.
Asked in court if his chief of staff, Heidi Gerbracht, worked closely with NARAL and Planned Parenthood, Councilmember Spelman answered affirmatively, “I believe that’s fair,” according to the complete transcript of his testimony.
Furthermore, emails between Gerbracht and NARAL Pro-Choice Texas show the two strategizing over the legislation. In their correspondence, Gerbracht writes to NARAL employees to discuss how they can use a similar case in Baltimore as a guide in what to avoid when wording the ordinance. “Our office has already been tossing around ways to strengthen this that would be workable here in Austin.”
The City of Baltimore v. Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns was the first case in the country to introduce truth-in-advertising legislation. As in Austin, the city of Baltimore enforced its pregnancy resource centers to disclose they do not offer abortion services. In June 2012, the Court upheld a decision to prevent the legislation from taking effect. Just two months later, however, the court granted the parties a new hearing. The case is yet to be heard.
Almost a week after Gerbracht sent her email, Cleveland sent another back to her and her NARAL co-workers explaining her institute’s motives in helping to draft the ruling.
“I know that together we can facilitate the passing of this initiative and protect the women of Austin from accidentally wandering into CPCs and facing manipulation, proselytizing, or worse, being lied to and threatened with medically inaccurate information,” she writes. “I greatly, greatly appreciate each of you and your involvement in this important process.”
Rocap, in another revealing email, uses strong language to suggest how NARAL and Spelman’s office can use the City of Baltimore case to try and sway the court to rule in their favor.
“If we wrote our own disclosure and include it and diminish that criticism and seem reasonable, that of course may not be the goal, we may want to just flex our muscle in Travis County and say too damn bad we have the power and this is what want.”
These emails may reveal some of NARAL’s negative sentiments toward Austin LifeCare, yet, in a phone conversation with Cleveland, the NARAL director told Townhall that her organization did not have much influence beyond the drafting of the rulings and declined to comment on the case.
The proceedings for the City of Austin v. Austin LifeCare regarding the new 2012 ordinance are currently delayed. Once the case resumes, Casey is confident the judge will rule in Austin LifeCare’s favor.
“There’s never been a ruling to prove against crisis pregnancy centers,” he said. “There’s no evidence against them.”
Pregnancy centers in New York, Maryland and California all faced similar rulings to that of Austin LifeCare, suggesting the battle between city governments, pro-choice groups and crisis pregnancy centers is no isolated occurrence. Casey suggested Austin LifeCare’s legal battle with NARAL is just a small part of the larger war on the Constitution.
“We’re losing our religious freedoms,” he said. “If we don’t protect them, we’ll lose them.”