(CN) – The Fourth Circuit on Friday struck down a Baltimore City law that required an anti-abortion pregnancy counseling center to post disclaimers in its waiting room that say it doesn’t offer or refer women for abortions.
The unanimous three-judge panel found the Baltimore ordinance violates the First Amendment rights of the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, a nonprofit Christian organization that counsels women on alternatives to abortion.
The ruling in the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court upheld a 2016 lower court ruling in which the judge held the city failed to identify a single example of a woman who walked into the center’s waiting room believing that she could obtain an abortion there.
The law at the center of the case was adopted by the city in 2009, and required the posting notices, in both English and Spanish, that a facility did not provide abortion or contraceptive services.
Throughout the case, lawyers for the city argued the law was intended to thwart what the city council saw as potentially deceptive practices and to prevent health risks that can arise from delaying an abortion.
But U.S. Circuit Judge Harvie Wilkinson III, writing for the panel, said the city has “considerable latitude in regulating public health and deceptive advertising.”
However in this case, “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.”
“We do not begrudge the City its viewpoint,” Wilkinson said at another point in 21-page ruling. “But neither may the City disfavor only those who disagree”
Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, a nonprofit that runs four facilities in the city, sued the city claiming the disclaimer policy violated its constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion.
The district court blocked the law from being enforced, but its ultimate fate was not decided until Friday.
Mark Rienzi, senior attorney at the Becket Fund, which represented the nonprofit, called the decision “broadly important” and pointed to Wilkinson’s strong words as evidence of the importance of the hearing. “The government, particularly on deeply important religious, social or moral issues, doesn’t have any right to tell people how to speak,” he said in an interview with Courthouse News.
Rienzi pointed out that other communities, like Montgomery County, Maryland, have passed similar ordinances that have also been tossed by the courts.
“They quit fighting four years ago,” Rienzi said. “[These laws are] passed because people think there’s lies and trickery happening. When it actually comes time to come to court and prove it, it turns out its bologna.”
In this case, he said, Baltimore had seven years to prove its assertions, “and couldn’t produce a soul who was confused.”
But Suzanne Sangree, director of public safety and litigation at the Baltimore City Solicitor’s office, said the Fourth Circuit got it wrong.
Sangree contends the city provided ample evidence to support the need for the law, but the court chose to ignore it.
She pointed to bus ads that were submitted during the discovery process which showed a young Black girl with the text “abortion alternatives” superimposed over top.
Sangree said a young woman could easily assume that those alternatives included methods like the morning after pill or comprehensive contraception. and instead would find they were counseled away from any alternative other than carrying the pregnancy to term.
“These are time sensitive services and it can delay matters,” she said. “City council thought the best way to mitigate the harm of that consumer deception was to inform women who were in the waiting room, they can go elsewhere.”
“If they’re seeking the spiritual counseling the center provides, they can stay there and get that,” she added.
NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, an abortion access advocacy group, agreed with Sangree’s of the Fourth Circuit’s decision.
The pro-choice group conducted an investigation in 2008 in which it found that some faith-based crisis pregnancy centers used deceptive practices to entice women away from having an abortion.
These tactics included saying birth control increased chances for breast cancer and having an abortion could impact a women’s future chances of getting pregnant, both of which the medical community has found false.
Diana Philip, NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland’s executive director, said an updated report set for release later this month will show these methods are still in use.
“Ten years later we’re still seeing those materials in these centers,” she said.
Sangree said the Baltimore City Council is still weighing whether to challenge the Fourth Circuit ruling.
Meanwhile, Carol Clews, executive director of the Center for Pregnancy Concerns, which filed the lawsuit, said in a statement, “We are committed to serving women in need in a way that respects their choices, comforts them in a difficult time and is in line with our mission.”
“This court ruling means that we can do our job and the government can’t tell us what to say or how to say it,” Clews said.