By Maria Wiering
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Dec. 6 on a 2010 Baltimore City ordinance that requires Baltimore’s pro-life pregnancy centers to post signs stating they do not provide or refer for abortions or birth control.
In June, a three-judge panel from the court heard the case and ruled 2-1to affirm a lower court’s January ruling favoring the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. (GBCPC).
The organization sued Baltimore City after being forced to post the signs, arguing that the ordinance violated its free speech rights. The Archdiocese of Baltimore and St. Brigid in Canton, a parish that hosts a GBCPC center, were also plaintiffs.
In August, the Richmond, Va.-based court decided to rehear the case en banc – or as a full court – voiding the June decision opposing the Baltimore City ordinance and a similar law in Montgomery County.
Both sides had 30 minutes to argue their case at the Dec. 6 hearing. It is unknown when the judges will rule.
Suzanne Sangree, chief solicitor for Baltimore City, argued that the ordinance is “targeted to prevent consumer deception,” and that “it is a problem that causes harm to public health.”
She called pro-life pregnancy centers a “non-medical provider trying to slip through the cracks.”
“When women come to these (pro-life) services and need to go somewhere else, they are delayed to access of comprehensive birth control services. This can endanger their health,” Sangree said.
David Kinkopf, attorney for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, argued against the ordinance, saying that, contrary to the mandated signage, pro-life pregnancy centers “do birth control services – namely abstinence.”
He argued the ordinance was unnecessary because the pregnancy centers are not falsely advertising. He also argued that the ordinance was not a health regulation, as the city suggested, but rather targeted pro-life centers unfairly in an attempt to squelch a certain viewpoint.
Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, then archbishop of Baltimore, said at the time of the suit’s original filing that the ordinance was “a clear violation of these centers’ constitutional rights to free speech and their free exercise of religion.”
Because the ordinance only applies to pro-life pregnancy centers, the U.S. District Court in Baltimore agreed that the ordinance discriminated based on viewpoint. The city appealed that decision.
After the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ June ruling upholding the district court’s decision, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said in a statement that he “applaud(ed) the court for recognizing that these centers were being targeted for their pro-life views and for sending a strong message to the rest of the nation that these kinds of onerous, discriminatory laws have no place in a nation founded on freedom.”
When the court decided to rehear the case, the archdiocese said that “every judicial review of this onerous law has resulted in the same finding: namely, that it is a violation of these centers’ First Amendment rights, including freedom of speech and religious liberty. We have every reason to think that another fair review of this ordinance will yield the same result.”
It added: “This law unfairly targets pro-life pregnancy centers which provide critical resources to women in crisis pregnancies who seek to carry their baby to term. “
GBCPC provides free services for 1,000 pregnant women in Baltimore City and receives about 8,000 calls to its 24-hour hotline annually.
Steve Neill, editor of the Catholic Virginian in Richmond, contributed to this story.