Crisis pregnancy centers get big legal win
Crisis pregnancy centers said the signs would have chased women away before they got the help they needed, and they also argued the signs were an unconstitutional violation of free speech.
In a 2-1 ruling June 27, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the centers, upholding an earlier decision by a lower court judge.
In a separate 2-1 decision the same day, the appeals court also struck down a Montgomery County, Md., law requiring that pregnancy centers post a sign with two disclosures: first, stating that a "licensed medical professional" is not on staff, and second, that the "Montgomery County Health Officer encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider."
The Montgomery County law, the court said, "amounts to an impermissible
government control of speech."
"The government-mandated statement, which must be posted 'conspicuously' on a pregnancy center's wall, suggests to potential clients that the center is not to be trusted and that a pregnancy center's services, like religious counseling or job placement assistance, will usually be inferior to those offered by medical professionals," the majority ruled.
"To be sure, Montgomery County is entitled to believe that pregnancy is first and foremost a medical condition, but it may not compel unwilling speakers to express that view."
Last year, a federal judge blocked enforcement of a New York City ordinance that would have required crisis pregnancy centers to post signs saying they don't perform abortions or refer women to abortion providers.
Often supported by churches, crisis pregnancy centers are needed, supporters say, because Planned Parenthood -- the nation's largest abortion provider -- is biased in its counseling and has a financial interest in guiding women to abortions.
The pro-life centers often provide such free services as pregnancy tests, ultrasound exams, prenatal care, childbirth classes, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, post-abortion counseling and material assistance. Abortion clinics typically do not provide many of these services.
The ultrasounds -- which show a woman her unborn baby in detail -- have been particularly helpful in deterring abortions.
The Alliance Defense Fund, a pro-life legal group, was involved with both cases and applauded the rulings.
"Pregnancy centers offer real help and hope to women. They should be free to share that message instead of being compelled to provide the government's preferred message, which sends women elsewhere," said ADF attorney Matt Bowman. "Pregnancy centers provide women with the emotional support and practical resources they need, giving them more choices. They should not be made to speak negatively about the important services they provide."
The majority opinion was authored by Judge Paul Victor Niemeyer, who was nominated to the appeals court by President George H.W. Bush, and joined by Judge Steven Agee, who was nominated by President George W. Bush. Dissenting was Judge Robert Bruce King, who was nominated by President Clinton.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.