The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Wednesday a lower court ruling striking down a Baltimore ordinance that required pregnancy clinics to post signs stating if they do not provide abortions.
Judge Robert B. King wrote in a majority opinion that the lower court was too hasty in overturning the city law but did not decide on the case's merits. The city has agreed to keep the law on hold while the lower court takes it up again.
"The … decision was laden with error, in that the court denied the defendants essential discovery and otherwise disregarded basic rules of civil procedure," King wrote.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake backed the law when she was president of the City Council, and the measure attracted attention on both sides of the abortion debate. Supporters said it would help women understand the full range of options available to them in dealing with an unwanted pregnancy.
"The city's position has been all along that this is a straightforward consumer protection measure," said Suzanne Sangree, a lawyer for the city.
But opponents, led by a clinic operator and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, argued that centers should not be required to post information about abortions if it violated their religious beliefs.
In the earlier ruling, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis sided with the plaintiffs, writing that the ordinance violated the clinics' free-speech rights by compelling them to post the signs.
The decision was upheld a year ago by a panel of three appeals court judges but was overturned Wednesday after it was reviewed by a larger group of judges.
The judges sent the case back to U.S. District Court for further proceedings that will allow both sides to present more information. The appeals court opinion offered no "comment on how this matter ultimately should be resolved."
Thomas J. Schetelich, chairman of the board for the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, the clinic at the center of the suit, said the debate will continue.
"We were disappointed but not discouraged by the decision, which was based entirely on procedural grounds," he said.
In a statement, Archbishop William E. Lori said the archdiocese is confident that the decision "will eventually lead to a ruling that affirms … the First Amendment principles we treasure in a free society."
The appeals court judges upheld a finding that the archdiocese and another church had no standing to fight the case, leaving the Center for Pregnancy Concerns as the only remaining plaintiff.
Jenny Black, president of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, said in a statement that Wednesday's ruling will give the lower court a chance to "fully explore the merits of this law."
"Planned Parenthood of Maryland supports Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in her efforts to provide accurate information to those seeking healthcare services in Baltimore City," Black added.
Sangree said that as the case goes forward, the city will be seeking information from the Center for Pregnancy Concerns about its advertizing practices and finances. City authorities want to show the clinic is a money-making operation that misleads patients in the way it describes its services, Sangree added.
Schetelich said the center relies entirely on donations and volunteers to do its work.
"We don't sell anything, we don't charge any fees," he said. "I think that when this is all over, it's going to be very clear that we are what we say we are: an organization that's driven by moral and religious beliefs."