Austin, Texas Suspends Law Attacking Pregnancy Centers

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 11, 2011   |   12:22PM   |   Austin, TX

The state capital city of Austin, Texas has suspended a law that forces pro-life pregnancy centers to post signs declaring that they do not provide abortions and other services. The decision came in response to a lawsuit pro-life legal groups filed on behalf of pregnancy centers seeking to provide women with alternatives to abortion.

Under the law, centers that do not post the signs face stiff financial penalties — even though the city did not pass any law forcing abortion business to post signs saying they do not provide comprehensive support for pregnant women seeking non-abortion support and medical care.

Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund and two pro-life organizations filed a lawsuit on behalf of Austin LifeCare, a pregnancy resource center, against the city of Austin. Today, the pregnancy center, along with other pro-life attorneys from the Texas Center for the Defense of Life and the Jubilee Campaign’s Law of Life Project, expressed its thanks to city officials for temporarily agreeing in court today that Austin LifeCare may take down the sign the city required it to post while Austin takes a closer look at the constitutionality of the law.

The agreement puts on hold, until February 2012, a lawsuit filed on October 6 on behalf of Austin LifeCare that challenges on First Amendment grounds the controversial ordinance.

“We are thankful to the City that it will take a closer look at its ordinance, and that in the meantime Austin LifeCare can continue to offer real help and hope to women without posting the City’s message, ADF attorney Matt Bowman told LifeNews today.

Federal District Court Judge Lee Yeakel, with the parties’ agreement, ordered the case to be stayed at least until February 3 when the parties will provide a status update to the court.

This is but the latest court decision favoring pregnancy centers, as a similar Baltimore law was struck down earlier this year. The law Baltimore approved attacking pregnancy centers there has already come under criticism and, in January, a federal judge struck down the measure after a lawsuit brought by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Under the law, a non-compliant pregnancy center may also be subject to a criminal misdemeanor charge under the law and, if convicted, the pregnancy center is subject to a fine of $200, plus $50 for each day the offense continues. The non-payment of fines could result in the pregnancy center being held in contempt of court.

Judge Garbis in Baltimore granted summary judgment finding the anti-pregnancy center law is viewpoint-based and impermissible 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).

n April 2010, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance to restrict the operations of what it calls “Limited Service Pregnancy Centers,” facilities that help pregnant women carry their babies to term without offering abortions, referrals to abortionists, or so-called “comprehensive birth control services.” Under the ordinance, centers such as Austin LifeCare are required to “prominently display, at the entrance of the center, two black and white signs, one in English and one in Spanish, that state as follows:  ‘This center does not provide abortions or refer to abortion providers. This center does not provide or refer to providers of U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved birth control drugs and medical devices.’”

The first offense is punishable by a minimum $250 fine; a minimum fine of $350 is issued for the second offense and a minimum $450 fine for the third. The fines only apply to individuals or organizations that primarily provide counseling information about pregnancy services or options.

“Pregnancy centers, which offer real help and hope to women, shouldn’t be punished by political allies of the abortion industry,” said ADF Legal Counsel Matt Bowman. “Attacks such as this ordinance 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 to generate profits. Now, pro-abortion politicians are trying to give women fewer choices.”

Samuel Casey, managing director of the Jubilee Campaign’s Law of Life Project who is the lead counsel in the case and is working with ADF, talked about the lawsuit as well.

“Because our client’s rights protected by the First Amendment should not continue to be violated, we are also asking the court to stop the ordinance from being enforced while the case continues,” he said.

Care Net General Counsel Jeanneane Maxon, the lead counsel for the national network of more than 1,200 pregnancy centers,  joinedsatisfied Austin LifeCare clients, along with Director Pam Cobern and counsel as Austin LifeCare filed suit in federal court.

Pam Cobern, Executive Director of Austin LifeCare commented: “For 27 years, Austin LifeCare has been empowering women and families to choose life and attain their personal goals through practical, spiritual, and emotional support as well as referrals. Our dedicated staff and volunteers serve the Austin community with integrity and provide services which have saved taxpayers and the city of Austin millions of dollars. Our goal is to continue providing excellent care that meets and exceeds our client’s expectations.”

Maxon added, On behalf of Care Net, “I am pleased to stand with Pam and her team in the great work they are doing to serve the Austin community. I commend them for opposing unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. By defending their right to provide life-affirming services with integrity and without undue governmental interference, Austin LifeCare is standing up for the basic Constitutional rights that every Pregnancy Resource Center in the United States enjoys.”

“I am very hopeful that this ordinance, like similar measures in other jurisdictions, will be overturned in federal court,” she said.

Bill Spelman, Laura Morrison, and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez sponsored the ordinance. The Texas affiliate of NARAL, a national pro-abortion group, was behind the effort to get Austin to approve the law, as sister chapters in other states have pushed similar laws elsewhere.

“This would be only the second ordinance of its kind in the United States, and our City Council members need to hear from as many Austin residents as possible who support this proposed ordinance,” it said in an action alert to its members.

Texas Center for the Defense of Life attorneys Greg Terra and Stephen Casey, also ADF-allied attorneys, are serving as co-counsel in the lawsuit, Austin LifeCare v. City of Austin, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas-Austin Division.

In the Baltimore case the judge ruled that the law’s attempt to burden speech unconstitutionally discriminated against noncommercial, unlicensed speech on the explicit basis that it came from a perspective disfavoring abortion.

“Under the Ordinance, such an organization – referred to as a “limited-service pregnancy center” – must post a conspicuous sign in its waiting room notifying its clients that the center “does not provide or make referral for abortion or birth-control services,’” the judge wrote. “As discussed herein, the Court holds that the Ordinance violates the Freedom of Speech Clause of Article I of the Constitution of the United States and is unenforceable.”

“Whether a provider of pregnancy-related services is “pro-life” or “prochoice,” it is for the provider – not the Government – to decide when and how to discuss abortion and birth-control methods. The Government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, require a “pro-life” pregnancy-related service center to post a sign as would be required by the Ordinance,” Judge Garbis added.

The New York City law faces two lawsuits over its law that is like the Austin statute.