Pro-life women helping centers win in challenge to Austin, Texas ordinance

 

By Dave Andrusko

Austin-LifeCare-signreAnother favorable decision in the ongoing battle to combating the pro-abortion assault on pro-life pregnancy help centers.

In a 15-page ruling U.S. Judge Lee Yeakel has held that an Austin, Texas, ordinance targeting these women-helping centers was “unconstitutionally vague and violates Plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of due process.”

NRL News Today has reported previously (nrlc.cc/1qZR9O3 and nrlc.cc/1zrXd4o) on the suit brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin, Catholic Charities of Central Texas, Austin Pregnancy Resource Center, and South Austin Pregnancy Resource Center against the law, first passed in 2010.

The latest defeat for the Austin City Council came after the Council looked around at how other attempts to stifle the free speech rights of women help centers were going—not well—and revised its law (Chapter 10-9) in an attempt to be less obvious. (The council was also about to be sued.)

Originally, the ordinance were very much similar to similar ordinances in New York, Baltimore, and Montgomery County, Maryland. It mandated that the centers display 8½-by-11-inch entrance signs, in English and Spanish, that said the pregnancy center does not provide or refer for abortions or birth control services. Those who violate the ordinance can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by fines of up to $450.

But on January 26, 2012, the Council passed another speech-abridging law–Chapter 10-10. As Ben Johnson explained back in February 2012, “The new ordinance does not mandate specific wording, but compels centers to post signs on their grounds stating whether all their medical services are supervised by a licensed health care provider or practitioner and if it is a medical facility.”

But as Samuel B. Casey of the Law of Life Project told Johnson, “the new wording does not solve the constitutional issue, because ‘it violates the same standards’: the First Amendment right of free speech, which includes the right not to speak.”

Judge Yeakel traced the history of the law that created a criminal offense and monetary penalties and carefully parsed the specific language of Chapter 10-10. For example, what does the phrase “full time practice on site” mean?

Yeakel cites an exchange with City Councilmember William Spellman, the City’s representative at trial, who acknowledged that “full-time” is not spelled out. Yeakel then explained

“Furthermore, when presented with the question of whether a pregnancy center that is only open 20 hours a week would be required to have a ‘full-time’ medical provider who works five days per week on site, Spellman responded that would be required; however, he continued, ‘That’s a flaw in the ordinance. I see your point.’”

Judge Yeakel also found shortcomings in what the plaintiffs called Chapter 10-10’s “broad and unbounded definition of ‘medical service,’ which is a nonexclusive list of only two items—diagnosing pregnancy or performing a sonogram.” Among other problems, Yeakel concluded “that Chapter 10-10 fails to impose sufficient restraints on the City’s discretion in enforcing the provisions of Chapter 10-10 with regard to what is a ‘medical service.’”

He then went on to reject the “solutions” offered by the City Council’s attorneys to “cure” the vagueness.

“Political allies of abortionists shouldn’t be allowed to use the law as a tool to attack pregnancy care centers, which offer real help and hope to women,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel Matt Bowman. ”As the district court found, Austin’s ordinance was so vague that it allowed the city dangerous latitude in punishing pro-life organizations. Courts around the country have been striking these types of laws down, and this decision joins the growing list.”