Federal Judge Strikes Part of Montgomery Council Law Targeting Women-Helping Pregnancy Centers

By Dave Andrusko

Judge Deborah Chasanow became the second federal judge in two months to cast a jaundiced eye on Maryland laws that critics maintain target women-helping pregnancy centers. The decision came one day before New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law another measure intended to harass crisis pregnancy centers. (See part two.)

In a 35-page decision Chasanow enjoined the Montgomery County Council from enforcing a part of Resolution No. 16-1252, passed February 1, 2010, until all the legal issues in Centro Tepeyac v. Montgomery County are resolved. Adding urgency to the case is that violators are fined $500 for the first day, and $750 for each day thereafter.

Chasanow focused on two provisions of the law, upholding the first and striking down the second.

The law compels pro-life pregnancy resource centers to “conspicuously” post signage (in English and Spanish) that state “the Center does not have a licensed medical professional on staff.” The judge upheld this portion of the law, concluding, “The [county’s] resolution was evidently intended to ensure that women did not forgo medical treatment that they would otherwise obtain after visiting an LSPRC [Limited Service Pregnancy Resource Centers].”

[The ordinance defines LSPRCs as (a) any “organization, center, or individual” whose (b) primary purpose is to providing pregnancy-related services for a fee or even free,” and (c) “does not have a licensed medical professional on staff.”]

But the law also requires that the signage says “the Montgomery County Health Officer encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider.” Chasanow wrote that the plaintiff (the Centro Tepeyac Women’s Center) had made “a clear showing that is likely to succeed” on First Amendment grounds.

The judge pointed out the county’s “interest in avoiding such a mistake [forgoing medical treatment] might be satisfied once women were aware that LSPRCs do not staff a medical professional.”Chasanow added, “To the extent that the second portion of the required disclaimer may compel unneeded speech, that statement would not be the least restrictive means of achieving a relevant government interest.”

According to Steve Lash of the Daily Record Legal, Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal, chair of the council’s Health and Human Services Committee, “said the council will meet next week with county attorneys to discuss what action to take following Chasanow’s decision.”

The City of Baltimore has already decided what it will do. It has appealed the January 28 ruling by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis that struck down a City Council ordinance requiring LSPRC’s to post a sign in their waiting rooms notifying clients that the center “does not provide or make referral for abortion or birth-control services.”

“Whether a provider of pregnancy-related services is ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice,’ it is for the provider — not the government — to decide when and how to discuss abortion and birth-control methods,” wrote Garbis (see “Federal Judge Cites Free Speech in Invalidating Baltimore Pregnancy Center Ordinance,” www.nrlc.org/NewsToday/BaltimoreFreeSpeech.html).