Appeals court strikes down Baltimore law targeting pregnancy centers

An appellate court struck down a Baltimore city ordinance Friday, ruling that the city’s pro-life pregnancy centers would not be forced to display in their waiting areas information relating to abortion services.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ Jan. 5 decision, a victory for Baltimore’s pregnancy centers, was a unanimous 3-0.

Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc., a pro-life pregnancy center in Baltimore, along with the Archdiocese of Baltimore and St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Congregation, Inc., sued the city of Baltimore in March 2010 after a city ordinance was passed the previous year which required it and other organizations promoting alternatives to abortion to post signs in their waiting room saying that they do not perform abortions and will not refer patients out for an abortion.

The ordinance only applied to “limited-service pregnancy center(s)” that do not provide abortion or birth control.

Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns said that they should not be forced to post this information as it ran contrary to the center’s mission. The center operates in space owned by a Catholic church, and provides pregnant women with counseling, sonograms, pregnancy tests, prenatal vitamins, diapers, and other needs completely free of charge.

The mayor of Baltimore and the City Council were joined in the suit by a variety of pro-abortion groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood of Maryland, and the Maryland Abortion Fund. The city argued that the ordinance was lawful due to the center’s “deceptive advertising” and the various health risks from delaying an abortion.

Previously, the center had run advertisements on Baltimore busses about its free pregnancy tests, counseling, and alternatives to abortion, but did not mention that it is a center religiously opposed to abortion.

In October 2016 the district court ruled in favor of Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc., but the ruling was appealed and sent to the 4th Circuit.

In the appellate court’s opinion, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson said that the City of Baltimore could not provide a single example of someone who entered the Greater Baltimore Center thinking that she could obtain an abortion or abortion referral, and that the center had a history of “affirmative advocacy of abortion alternatives.”

Wilkinson said the city ordinance was “neither viewpoint nor content neutral,” as it was aimed specifically at clinics that do not provide abortion services.

“We do not begrudge the City its viewpoint. But neither may the City disfavor only those who disagree,” wrote Wilkinson.

On the city’s defense of the ordinance combating “deceptive advertising,” he also said the ordinance was “overinclusive” as it applied to all pro-life pregnancy centers, regardless if they do any sort of advertising whatsoever.

Wilkinson wrote that it was the “compelled speech” mandated by the signage that violated the First Amendment, and that while the City of Baltimore may view abortion as acceptable, the Greater Baltimore Center did not, and that it indeed is “antithetical” to its mission to do so.

“At bottom, the disclaimer portrays abortion as one among a menu of morally equivalent choices,” said Wilkinson. “While that may be the City’s view, it is not the Center’s. The message conveyed is antithetical to the very moral, religious, and ideological reasons the Center exists. Its avowed mission is to “provid[e] alternatives to abortion.”

This, said Wilkinson, is where the City of Baltimore violated the First Amendment.

“But, at least in this case […], it is not too much to ask that they lay down the arms of compelled speech and wield only the tools of persuasion. The First Amendment requires it.”