Judge Strikes Most of Maryland Law Attacking Pregnancy Centers

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 16, 2011   |   12:56PM   |   Greenbelt, MD

A federal judge struck down most of a law Montgomery County, Maryland officials passed that targets pregnancy centers and requires them to post signs that may turn potential clients away.

The decision follows on the heels of another one where a another federal judge struck down a Baltimore law that was the subject of a lawsuit brought by the Archdiocese of Baltimore because it unfairly attacks pregnancy centers that provide women with abortion alternatives.

The county, located in a suburban area of both Baltimore and Washington, D.C., approved new rules sponsored by Montgomery County Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg where pregnancy centers would be required to tell potential clients that they should go elsewhere for medical advice because Trachtenberg claims they are misleading women. The new law makes it so pregnancy centers must post a disclaimer if they don’t have medical professionals on staff and would refer them to a center with licensed medical professionals.

Alliance Defense Fund attorneys representing a Silver Spring pregnancy resource center filed a lawsuit against the county and most of the law was put on hold Tuesday by a federal court while a lawsuit against the ordinance moves forward.

The court issued an order preventing the county from enforcing the requirement that pregnancy centers must post signage noting that the county believes women should seek assistance elsewhere. The court will also consider additional arguments before ruling on a part of the law that requires the centers to post that a medical professional is not on staff. The county intentionally crafted the law so that it doesn’t apply to abortion centers, such as Planned Parenthood.

“There is no abortion exception to the First Amendment,” said Mark Rienzi, lead counsel for the Centro Tepeyac Women’s Center and a law professor at Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law.  “The court was right to issue this order. The county has no business taking over the walls of pro-life pregnancy centers to tell women to go seek help elsewhere.”

“The government cannot create special speech rules just because people want to talk about pregnancy choices. And it certainly cannot target pro-life speakers for special sign requirements and fines while leaving speech by abortion clinics entirely unregulated. This new regulation violates every core principle of free speech law,” he said.

Alliance Defense Fund lead attorney Matt Bowman added, in comments to LifeNews.com, “Pregnancy centers, which offer real help and hope to women, shouldn’t be punished by political allies of the abortion industry. Attacks on pregnancy centers are an ideologically motivated attempt to distract from the growing national scandals in the abortion industry. For years, abortionists have preyed on women and girls for profit. Now pro-abortion politicians are trying to give these women fewer choices. This order is a step in the right direction.”

The court issued the order because it believes that Centro Tepeyac is likely to succeed on its most significant arguments.

ADF says the law  forces “limited-service pregnancy centers” and individuals who have a “primary purpose” of offering information about pregnancy to post signage noting that a medical professional is not on staff and that the county health department advises them to speak with a licensed medical professional. Under the new court order, the centers no longer have to post the latter portion, and they can continue to challenge the rest of the requirements as the case proceeds.

Under Resolution No. 16-1252, failure to post such signs can result in fines of more than $20,000 a month: $500 for the first day of violation and $750 for each day thereafter. Additionally, anyone that speaks to a pregnant woman–including maternity store employees, sidewalk counselors and church members–may also be required to “conspicuously post” signage.

As currently worded, the law could also require maternity stores, sidewalk counselors, or anyone in a church that talks to pregnant women to “conspicuously post” signs that state that no licensed medical professional is on staff and that “the Montgomery County Health Officer encourages women who are or could be pregnant to consult a licensed health care provider.”

The county council explicitly admitted that the policy’s intent is to regulate pro-life centers because the council disagrees with their past speech about abortion’s risks.

Attorney Bob Michael and ADF-allied attorney John Garza  are serving as co-counsel in the lawsuit, Centro Tepeyac v. Montgomery County, filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in May.