Austin halts anti-pregnancy center law

Baptist Press
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Posted: Nov 18, 2011 6:22 PM
Austin halts anti-pregnancy center law
WASHINGTON (BP) -- The city of Austin, Texas, has relented for the time being on an ordinance targeting pro-life crisis pregnancy centers.

Lawyers for Austin LifeCare say the city agreed in court to allow the pro-life center to remove signs required by a 2010 ordinance, and that the city agreed not to enforce the law while it reviews the measure's constitutionality. The ordinance requires such centers to display signs at their entrances saying they do not provide abortions or contraceptives or make referrals for those services.

Austin LifeCare was the only one of four centers in Austin that posted the signs after the ordinance was adopted. The other three refused to post the signs, saying to do so would contradict their religious beliefs, according to The Austin American-Statesman.

The four pregnancy help centers sued the city in early October of this year, contending Austin's sign ordinance violates their freedom of speech and religion. Under the agreement with the city, the suit will not move forward until at least Feb. 3, lawyers for the centers said. On that date, lawyers from both sides will provide updates in federal court.

Austin has good reason to study the constitutionality of the law. Such ordinances approved by other local governments have not fared well in court. Federal judges have blocked enforcement of similar laws in New York City; Baltimore, Md.; and Montgomery County, Md.

Sam Casey, lead lawyer for Austin Life Care, commended the city for halting enforcement of the law, "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."

Casey is general counsel of the Jubilee Campaign's Law of Life Project.

Under the Austin ordinance, punishment for a first offense is a minimum fine of $250.

Meanwhile, the city of San Francisco also has adopted an ordinance seeking to regulate pregnancy help centers. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors gave final approval in a 10-1 vote Oct. 25 to a measure that would prohibit such centers from providing false or misleading information about their services.

If the San Francisco city attorney determines a pregnancy help center is violating the law, he can urge the center to correct its advertising. If that fails, he may seek a court injunction requiring the center potentially to pay for "corrective advertising" and/or post signs saying if it performs or refers for abortions and if a licensed physician is on its staff.

Sean Elsbernd, the lone supervisor to oppose the ordinance, said Oct. 18 there had been "no testimony, no documentation, no affidavits of any woman seeking service who has been misled."

"There is nothing in the record documenting that," he said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "What I hear we are doing today is passing a solution in search of a problem."

According to the Chronicle, First Resort, a center targeted by the bill, said in a written statement the ordinance "regulates and restricts speech only by persons and organizations the city regards as having 'antiabortion' or pro-life views, exempting the rest. This viewpoint and speaker discrimination is a blatant violation of the First Amendment of the United States."

Neither the Austin ordinance nor the San Francisco law requires abortion clinics to display signs indicating what services they do not provide or empowers the city to mandate such clinics provide accurate advertising.

Many pro-life, pregnancy help centers provide such free services as pregnancy tests, ultrasound exams, prenatal care, childbirth classes, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, abstinence education, post-abortion counseling and material assistance. Abortion clinics typically do not provide some of these services.

Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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