Pregnancy centers challenge Austin sign ordinance

Monday, October 10, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — Four faith-based centers that counsel women with unplanned pregnancies filed lawsuits Oct. 6 claiming Austin’s sign ordinance violates their constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech and religion.

The ordinance, which the City Council passed unanimously last year, requires centers to post signs at their entrance stating they neither offer nor refer clients to abortion or birth control services.

The centers filed two federal lawsuits to try to prevent the city from enforcing the ordinance. Anti-abortion groups are supporting their efforts.

The ordinance “is designed to criminally punish the leadership and volunteer board members of pregnancy centers for no other reason than their moral opposition to abortion,” said Pam Cobern, executive director of Austin LifeCare, one of the four plaintiffs.

The center “should be allowed to serve the less fortunate in a manner consistent with their beliefs, without fear of punishment from a city government that has a political disagreement with our message,” Cobern told the Austin American-Statesman.

Failure to post the 8½-by-11-inch signs is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $450 fine.

A city spokesman said no one has been cited for violating the ordinance since it went into effect in April. He declined to comment on the lawsuits because he said city lawyers were still reviewing them.

However, City Council members have said the law was meant only to clarify the services the centers offer, not penalize them for their views.

NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and other advocacy groups have said the centers try to talk clients out of having abortions and give them misleading information about the procedure.

The centers say they offer free pregnancy tests, adoption counseling, parenting classes and child-care supplies to women with unplanned pregnancies and are upfront with clients about the services they offer.

Although Austin LifeCare said it has reluctantly posted the signs, the three others — Austin Pregnancy Resource Center, South Austin Pregnancy Resource Center and the Gabriel Project Life Center run by Catholic Charities of Central Texas — have not. The centers say doing so would conflict with their Christian beliefs.

While none of the centers provide abortions or refer clients to agencies that do, three of the four say they do refer married clients to doctors for birth control. None of them give single clients birth control referrals.

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