In a decision with major national implications for pregnancy centers across the country, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit unanimously affirmed that a Baltimore City ordinance requiring pro-life pregnancy care centers to post signs promoting abortions violated their First Amendment free speech rights.
In contrast to decisions by the Ninth Circuit which validated a similar law in California, the Fourth Circuit found that the Baltimore ordinance was not commercial or professional speech.
The court said, “The compelled speech at issue here raises particularly troubling First Amendment concerns. At bottom, the disclaimer portrays abortion as one among a menu of morally equivalent choices. While that may be the city’s view, it is not the center’s.”
The court also found that the ordinance represented an impermissible attempt by the City of Baltimore “to use compelled speech as a weapon to run its ideological foes into the ground,” which risks grave violation of the country’s most cherished freedoms.
The decision will help other pregnancy centers fighting similiar laws elsewhere.
The pro-life group Liberty Counsel represents three pro-life crisis pregnancy centers in Southern California, all of which offer women experiencing crisis pregnancies resources, counseling, advice and alternatives to abortion.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, one of four cases brought by crisis pregnancy centers challenging the law as a violation of the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion. The ruling on the NIFLA case will apply to the other pending cases.
“The Baltimore City Ordinance which forced crisis pregnancy centers to speak a message that goes directly against their religious beliefs and mission to save lives is unconstitutional,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel. “The First Amendment protects the right to speak and the right not to speak. This unbelievable government mandate forced pregnancy help centers and staff to be puppets of the government and channel the state’s abortion message.”
The Catholic Association, which filed an amicus brief in the case, also responded to the decision.
Ashley McGuire told LifeNews: “Today the Fourth Circuit issued a common sense ruling protecting crisis pregnancy centers from being forced to advertise for abortion. This is a decisive victory for the free speech rights of these centers, which serve women and offer them true choices and hope when they are in difficult situations. The court was clear in its ruling, arguing that efforts to force the centers to advertise for abortion amount to “compel[ling] a politically and religiously motivated group to convey a message fundamentally at odds with its core believes and mission.” We now look to the Supreme Court to put an end once and for all to the unconstitutional bullying of pregnancy clinics.”
The pro-life organization Americans United for Life previously filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of Care Net and pregnancy care centers in Maryland, whose free speech rights were being trampled by the abortion industry.
AUL’s Director of Legal Communications, Deanna Wallace told LifeNews that there has been a recent push by the abortion industry to force the pro-life community to push an abortion message in pregnancy care centers by requiring signs about abortion to be posted. The abortion industry has worked for the passage of multiple ordinances across the country to force their abortion messages on pro-life pregnancy centers.
“The ordinance in the Baltimore case is a blatant attempt to undermine the life-affirming work of pregnancy care centers by forcing the posting of messages about abortions in their facilities,” said Wallace. “Clearly, the abortion industry feels threatened by the ability of these dedicated pregnancy care centers to provide women with alternatives to abortion, and is trying to protect their profits by forcing pro-life pregnancy centers to promote abortion. AUL is extremely pleased that the Fourth Circuit unanimously recognized the free speech rights of these commendable pro-life centers, and we look forward to continuing to be active in court cases defending their ability to serve women and their children with love and respect.”