NYC Law Attacking Pregnancy Centers Faces Court Hearing

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jun 14, 2011   |   3:34PM   |   New York, NY

New York City officials face a hearing in federal court tomorrow over a lawsuit filed on behalf of pregnancy centers attacked in a new ordinance the city council passed and Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed.

The city council approved the bill on a 39-9-1 vote on the ordinance that would place stringent limits on the advertising pregnancy centers use and require them to post signs designed to dissuade women from seeking their abortion alternatives services.

Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed suit against the city over the law that the pro-life legal group says “threatens non-medical, pro-life pregnancy care centers with steep fines and potential closure if they don’t post signs and publish in their ads that the city health department encourages women to go elsewhere.” Meanwhile, officials with the American Center for Law and Justice also filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the ordinance. The ACLJ represents numerous crisis pregnancy centers and contends the law violates the U.S. Constitution as well as the New York State Constitution.

Margaret Harthsorn, the president of Heartbeat International, a national network of pregnancy centers offering women abortion alternatives, commented on the upcoming hearing. Heartbeat has been on the ground since the New York City Council voted to pass Bill 371 and Mayor Bloomberg signed the bill into law, stating, “I know it’s unconstitutional, but I’m going to sign it anyway.”

“Immediately after the bill was signed into law, Heartbeat took action. A lawsuit against the city of New York has been filed by Heartbeat’s representative, ACLJ. The lawsuit seeks to defend the rights of pregnancy help centers in NYC and to strike down the unconstitutional law,” she said.

“Tomorrow is an extremely important day. A Federal Court hearing will take place at 2:30 p.m., in which oral arguments will be heard regarding the lawsuit,” Harthsorn added. “The new law places harsh stipulations on pregnancy center advertising, phone conversations with potential clients, and sets an evil precedent for cities across the USA that are being targeted by a pro-abortion agenda. Please pray for the hearing tomorrow and for strength for the pregnancy help centers in New York City.”

Harthsorn condemned the law saying that all abortion businesses (licensed and unlicensed) are excluded from it while all pregnancy help centers are included. She said the law requires pregnancy help centers to post signage indicating what services they do and do not provide and allows individuals, who may be abortion activists, to sue pregnancy help centers if they do not post a sign. She said the law also requires verbal disclosure to clients of services that pregnancy help centers do and do not provide but limits legal protection for pregnancy centers.

CeCe Heil, ACLJ Senior Counsel, told LifeNews previously, “Since this ordinance was first proposed, we have put the city council and the mayor on notice that it was unconstitutional and that we were prepared to challenge it immediately if passed.  We’re now moving forward with that challenge.”

“This measure is troubling because it violates crisis pregnancy centers’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, specifically protected by the constitution.  We are committed to protecting the rights of our clients and are urging the federal court to halt implementation of this ordinance and declare it unconstitutional.  Similar ordinances have already been struck down in federal court and we have no doubt that this ordinance will be rejected as well,” the attorney added.

The ACLJ represents EMC Frontline Pregnancy Centers and AAA Pregnancy Problems Center which operate a total of 13 crisis pregnancy centers across New York City. The pro-life legal group filed the lawsuit today on their behalf in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The suit contends that the ordinance violates the constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of the press, and due process of law, guaranteed to the plaintiffs by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the New York Constitution.

The ordinance requires crisis pregnancy centers to disclose in advertisements and in their facilities a list of services they do not provide, such as abortions or emergency contraception – it also requires the centers to make disclosures verbally. The lawsuit contends that at a minimum, the ordinance “unconstitutionally compels Plaintiffs to speak messages that they have not chosen for themselves, with which they do not agree, and that distract from and detract from the messages they have chosen to speak.”

The ACLJ asks the court to keep the ordinance from being implemented while the lawsuit proceeds.  The suit seeks injunctive relief, in the form of preliminary and permanent injunctions, and urges the court to declare the law unconstitutional.  The ACLJ is being assisted in the case by Christopher Ferrara, New York Litigation Counsel to American Catholic Lawyers Association, who is serving as local counsel.

ADF Legal Counsel Matt Bowman also commented on the law and the lawsuit in remarks to

“Pregnancy centers, which offer real help and hope to women, shouldn’t be punished by political allies of the abortion industry,” he said.  “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 women fewer choices.”

Two federal courts have issued injunctions against similar bills in Maryland. ADF-allied attorneys were involved in both cases, with ADF attorneys directly representing the pregnancy care center in the most recent ruling. That gives pregnancy centers in New York hope that the legal precedent will be used in their case.

Bloomberg signed the bill just after a new report indicated 41 percentof pregnancies in New York City end in abortion. The report, which was recently exposed at a press conference by Archbishop Timothy Dolan and an interfaith coalition of religious leaders, showed an abortion rate of 60% for African American women and that 90% of all abortions in New York City were performed on ethnic minorities.

In January, a 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 judge granted summary judgment finding the anti-pregnancy center law is viewpoint-based and impossible to render constitutional under the First Amendment. He dismissed without prejudice all other claims and found a couple of the plaintiffs lacked standing (including the Archbishop and the Catholic church that provides space for one of the pregnancy centers that filed suit) but the ruling is viewed as a substantial victory by pro-life advocates.

Early in March, 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.

ADF is representing two centers and a maternity home in the lawsuit, Pregnancy Care Center of New York v. City of New York, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. M. Todd Parker of Moskowitz & Book, LLP, is local counsel.