Baltimore Archdiocese challenges city’s abortion-sign ordinance

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

BALTIMORE — The Archdiocese of Baltimore is suing the city of Baltimore over a new ordinance requiring pregnancy centers that don’t provide abortions to post signs saying so, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien announced this week.

The ordinance “is a clear violation of these centers’ constitutional rights to free speech and their free exercise of religion,” O’Brien said. The suit filed March 29 in U.S. District Court names the city, mayor, the City Council and the city’s health commissioner and health department as defendants.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake introduced the legislation when she was City Council president after meeting with abortion-rights advocates, who complained that some clinics were providing inaccurate information, such as claiming that abortions are connected to breast cancer and other problems. Abortion opponents said the bill unfairly targets centers that provide good information and much-needed help for poor women. Violators could face a $150 fine.

Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson issued a statement March 29 saying the city “will defend the ordinance to what we anticipate will be a successful conclusion.”

“Our Office approved the constitutionality of the measure when it was pending before the Council,” Nilson added.

O’Brien announced the suit at a news conference at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church, which hosts one of three centers operated by the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns.

O’Brien also said in a statement issued by the archdiocese that the requirement only applies to centers that do not provide abortions, which he said is unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.

The archdiocese said its complaint argues that the ordinance that went into effect in January “targets for speech regulation only one side of a contentious public, political debate,” which the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled violates the First Amendment. The archdiocese said the complaint also argues the ordinance wrongly requires centers to state that they do not provide birth-control services when they provide “education about abstinence and natural family planning.”

Carol A. Clews, executive director of the Center for Pregnancy Concerns, a nonprofit, anti-abortion organization that receives donations from religious groups, said at the news conference that the centers have complied with the law and posted the signs. She added that center clients have never complained “about being misled in any way or problems with the services they’ve received.”

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