December 10, 2012 — A federal appeals court on Thursday questioned lawyers in two lawsuits claiming that regulations in Baltimore and Montgomery County, Md., requiring crisis pregnancy centers to post disclaimers violate the centers' First Amendment rights, the AP/WTOP reports. A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that both statutes were unconstitutional, and the local governments appealed to the full court. The full court is expected to issue a ruling in the coming weeks or months (O'Dell, AP/WTOP, 12/6).
Baltimore's ordinance (FID 09-0406) was approved in 2009 but had not been enforced because of the court proceedings. It requires "limited-service pregnancy centers" to post signs in English and Spanish stating what services they provide -- such as maternity and infant supplies, prenatal care and adoption referrals -- and what they do not offer, including abortion care. Centers that fail to comply within 10 days of being cited by city inspectors could be fined $150 per day (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/2).
Lawyers representing the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns argued that the ordinance unconstitutionally restricts the way the center can advertise.
When Judge Dennis Shedd questioned why the center would fight an ordinance that simply requires it to tell the truth, David Kinkopf, the plaintiff's attorney, said that the center has a right to share the information through its own advertising and public outreach, not by a forced government method.
Suzanne Sangree, an attorney for the city, argued that the ordinance was designed to protect women and prevent them from being deceived about the services they will receive at the centers.
Judge Harvie Wilkinson said he was troubled that the law applied to only CPCs. He asked, "If you can't point to some harmful procedure, doesn't that go a little too far?" However, Judge Robert King, who dissented in the earlier ruling, noted that "[p]ublic health is a special situation."
Montgomery County Ordinance
Meanwhile, lawyers for the Cento Tepeyac Women's Center argued that a similar Montgomery County law was designed to reduce the center's impact by implying that its counselors were not qualified (AP/WTOP, 12/6).
Under the law, which the Montgomery County Council approved in 2010, the centers must post signs "conspicuously" in waiting rooms stating that they do not employ licensed medical personnel and urge women to "consult with a licensed health care provider" (Zapana, Washington Post, 12/6).
During Thursday's oral arguments, county attorney Clifford Royalty said a sign is a "minimal intrusion" that does not keep crisis pregnancy centers from delivering an antiabortion message (AP/WTOP, 12/6). He added that the law was designed to protect women from false or misleading information, which are present in some CPCs (Washington Post, 12/6).
In the Montgomery County case, Wilkinson appeared to side with the government, saying he does not have a problem with the requirement that the center must disclose that it does not employ a medical professional. He asked, "In a health situation, doesn't the government have some latitude to act to prevent harms that might result as long as the means are narrowly tailored?" He added that the mandated note about a referral to a medical professional goes too far.
However, Judge Paul Niemeyer told Royalty that he was troubled "by the notion that you believe anything can be compelled to be said, even if it's accurate." He added, "We have a fundamental right not to be told what to say when performing a legal service" (AP/WTOP, 12/6).