6th Circuit hears Sisters of Life challenge to Louisville “buffer zone”

By Dave Andrusko

A “skeptical” Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the Louisville metro government defend its policy of establishing a 10 foot buffer zone in front of the EMW Women’s Surgical Center. The Louisville City Council enacted the buffer zone in May 2021. EMW is the lone abortion provider in Kentucky.

“Sisters for Life, a Christian anti-abortion nonprofit group also based in Louisville, opposed the city ordinance establishing the buffer zone in a June 2021 federal lawsuit,” Dave Byrne reported. “It argues that barring ministers from EMW’s front entrance violates free speech and religious freedom rights, and endangers what it called a ‘life-saving sidewalk ministry.’”

Byrne added, quoting the group’s amended complaint, “Defendants have substantially burdened Plaintiffs’ freedom of religion, including their right to act in a manner motivated by their sincerely religious beliefs, i.e. sidewalk ministry.”

Addia Wuchner, R.N., Executive Director KRTL, explained that “Kentucky Right to Life and Sisters for Life are defending pro-life sidewalk counseling, an attempt to provide women seeking abortions with alternatives like parenting and adoption resources. There have been children saved because of that intimate conversation with a sidewalk counselor as women were walking in to have an abortion.”

U.S. District Court Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings repeatedly denied the Sisters for Life’s requests for injunctions against the buffer zone throughout 2021. She “finally tossed the case in February of this year, finding Sisters for Life had not demonstrated how the buffer zone irreparably injures itself or its constituent members,” Byrne wrote. “The group appealed Grady Jennings’ ruling three days after she handed it down.”

In Thursday’s oral arguments, Sisters for Life Attorney Christopher Wiest

argued the buffer zone was a form of legislative overkill. He stated, as he did in the 2021 complaint, that the language of the buffer zone ordinance actually bars ministers from approaching within half a city block of EMW, not just 10 feet.

“We can’t conduct our ministry,” he told the panel. “We can’t interact with these people.”

Wiest also clarified to the judges that Sister for Life did not oppose all of the buffer zone ordinance, which also prohibits anyone from “knowingly obstruct[ing], detain[ing], hinder[ing], imped[ing], or block[ing] another person’s entry to or exit from a health care facility.”

“We’ve never challenged that [obstruction clause]; in fact we suggest that’s all the city needed,” the attorney said.

The judges did not set a timetable for when they would issue a ruling.