A three-judge panel for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled against a 2009 Baltimore city ordinance Friday that required pro-life pregnancy centers to post messages specifying that they did not provide abortion or refer patients to it.
The judges found that the ordinance violated the First Amendment free speech rights of the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, a Christian group that provides prenatal care and abortion alternatives.
The panel’s decision upheld an earlier October 2016 ruling by U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis in Baltimore.
Those arguing in favor of the ordinance said it addressed deceptive advertising and helped reduce health risks from waiting too long to have an abortion.
In his decision, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, wrote that “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.”
“Without proving the inefficacy of less restrictive alternatives, providing concrete evidence of deception, or more precisely targeting its regulation, the city cannot prevail,” he concluded.
David Kinkopf, a lawyer representing the clinic, was pleased that the court “strongly upheld the First Amendment rights of religious and other nonprofit charities to speak and to serve those in need in the manner their conscience dictates, without undue government interference.”
Carol Clews, executive director of the Center for Pregnancy Concerns, said those at the center “are committed to serving women in need in a way that respects their choices, comforts them in a difficult time and is in line with our mission. This court ruling means that we can do our job and the government can’t tell us what to say or how to say it.”
This case is just one of many across the country against laws mandating abortion information be provided by pro-life pregnancy care centers.
The Thomas More Society filed a complaint on Thursday with the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights following a similar case in Illinois where a pregnancy center was being legally compelled to discuss abortion. The Christian legal group is asking HHS to issue interpretive guidance clarifying that existing federal law prohibits such ordinances.
The Supreme Court agreed in November to hear the case of a California law mandating that pregnancy centers post abortion information. That case is expected to be argued before the court in the coming months.