U.S. Court of Appeals upholds free speech rights of Baltimore’s pro-life pregnancy centers

In a 3-0 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down a Baltimore ordinance that would have forced pro-life pregnancy centers in the city to post signs stating they do not provide or refer for abortions or contraceptives. The Jan. 5 decision upholds a lower federal court’s ruling.

The Baltimore City Council passed the law on a 12-3 vote in 2009, despite the strong objections of then-Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, who argued that the measure violated the right to free speech. He also contended that the law unfairly targeted pro-life pregnancy centers, while failing to require abortion providers to post similar signs indicating what services they don’t provide.

Archbishop William E. Lori, his successor, continued a battle against the law as it faced multiple court challenges over the last several years.

“We are grateful to the court for this important First Amendment precedent, which notably rejects the argument that a nonprofit’s speech about important social issues constitutes commercial or professional speech,” Archbishop Lori said in a Jan. 5 statement.

Noting that a related case is pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, the archbishop said “we look forward to a similar ruling supporting the freedom of religious nonprofits to help those in need and to speak clearly about important social issues.”

The Baltimore law, which would have imposed a $150 daily fine on pregnancy centers that fail to post the mandated signs, was the first of its kind in the nation. It affected the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, a pro-life, Baltimore-based outreach that provides free services to 1,200 women annually. Some of its services have been offered in facilities owned by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

“These pregnancy centers exist to provide material and emotional support to young women in need and their families,” Archbishop Lori said. “These are small, volunteer-driven beacons of hope in a city in need of hope.”

The centers provide formula, diapers, baby clothes, strollers and other items free of charge to “poor and vulnerable mothers in the most-challenged neighborhoods in our community, including the center operating out of St. Ann’s Catholic Church on Greemount Avenue in East Baltimore,” the archbishop said.

The Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Center includes written information and lobby signs listing the many services it provides, while also noting that it does not provide abortion.

In the ruling, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote that his court has in the past struck down attempts to compel speech from abortion providers, and is doing the same in striking down attempts to compel speech from abortion foes.

“We do so in belief that earnest advocates on all sides of this issue should not be forced by the state into a corner and required essentially to renounce and forswear what they have come as a matter of deepest conviction to believe,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson said the city has “considerable latitude” in regulating public health and deceptive advertising.

“But Baltimore’s chosen means here are too loose a fit with those ends, and in this case compel a politically and religiously motivated group to convey a message fundamentally at odds with its core beliefs and mission,” he said.

Carol Clews, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, said in a Jan. 5 statement that her organization is committed to serving women in need “in a way that respects their choices, comforts them in a difficult time and is in line with our mission.”

“This court ruling means that we can do our job and the government can’t tell us what to say or how to say it,” she said.

Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm representing the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, said the court’s decision “confirms that government has no place mandating speech, especially speech associated with deeply-held religious beliefs.”

“The center can now continue helping women in need without the government telling them how to talk about abortion,” he said in a Jan. 5 statement.

David Kinkopf, an attorney with Gallagher, Evelius & Jones who represents the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, added in a Jan. 5 statement that he is “very pleased that the Fourth Circuit strongly upheld the First Amendment rights of religious and other nonprofit charities to speak and to serve those in need in the manner their conscience dictates, without undue government interference.”

Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org.

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George P. Matysek Jr.

George P. Matysek Jr.

A member of the Catholic Review’s editorial staff from 1997 to 2017, George Matysek has served as a staff writer, senior writer, associate editor and web editor. He was named the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s digital editor in April 2017.

George has won more than 70 national and regional journalism awards from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, the Catholic Press Association, the Associated Church Press and National Right to Life. He has reported from Guyana, Guatemala, Italy, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

A native Baltimorean, George is a proud graduate of Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School in Essex. He holds a bachelor's degree from Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore and a master's degree from UMBC.

George, his wife and four children live in Rodgers Forge, where they are parishioners of St. Pius X, Rodgers Forge/St. Mary of the Assumption, Govans.