In a win for anti-abortion groups, a federal appeals court struck down, on free speech grounds, a Baltimore ordinance that requires pregnancy clinics that do not offer abortions to disclose that through signs posted in the waiting room.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday said the city has considerable latitude in regulating public health, “but Baltimore’s chosen means here are too loose a fit with those ends, and in this case compel a politically and religiously motivated group to convey a message fundamentally at odds with its core beliefs and mission.
The Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns Inc., a non-profit Christian group dedicated to providing alternatives to abortion challenged the law as a First Amendment violation. The group is provided space, rent-free, by the Catholic Church. It provides pregnant women with free services, including counseling, bible study, pregnancy tests, sonograms and child care education.
It advertised widely in the city as providing free abortion alternatives. The city passed the law in 2009 after growing concern that women seeking abortions might be misled into visiting pro-life pregnancy centers and delaying the abortion.
Under the law a “limited-service” pregnancy center that does not provide abortions or referral for abortion services must post conspicuous signs in English and Spanish that indicate the center does not provide abortion services or referrals.
The appeals court upheld the district court dismissal of the case saying the city law was not narrowly tailored to accomplish a compelling government interest.
The panel rejected the city argument that it was regulating commercial speech, which does not have the same protections under the First Amendment.
The bitter debate over abortion allows room for reasonable regulation, “but there is a limit to how much they [the city] can dictate core beliefs,” the panel wrote. In the past the court struck down attempts to compel speech by abortion providers, it noted.
“Weaponizing the means of government against ideological foes risks a grave violation of one of our nation’s dearest principles: ‘that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein,’” the court said.
Case: Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns v. Farrow, No. 16-2325