Baltimore officials cannot use a 2009 city law to force a Christian pregnancy center to post a disclaimer stating that it won't refer women for abortions, a federal judge ruled this week.
U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis ruled that enforcing the ordinance would violate the free-speech rights of the Center for Pregnancy Concerns, but he declined to find that the law itself was unconstitutional.
"The Disclaimer as mandated forces pregnancy centers to begin their conversations with a stark government disclaimer, divorced from the support offered by the Center, and suggesting that abortion is available elsewhere and might be considered a good option by pregnant women — a message that the Center expressly finds morally offensive and would not otherwise provide," Garbis wrote in a 54-page ruling issued Tuesday.
The decision comes after a six-year court fight and is the latest in a series of similar cases around the country. The cases have pitted anti-abortion activists and religious freedom groups against several cities and counties and abortion rights activists who say such centers trick pregnant women with misleading advertising and pressure them not to get abortions.
It's not clear how many such centers are operating nationwide, but estimates run in the thousands, meaning they could outnumber abortion providers.
The Center for Pregnancy Concerns operates a facility in the city's East Baltimore Midway neighborhood as well as three in Baltimore County, and says it serves some 1,200 women a year.
Carol Clews, the organization's director, said in a statement that the facilities provide love and support to help women in need.
"That's work the city should be supporting, not attacking," she said. "I hope that after six years of wasted time and money, the city will realize that it would actually be harming women by continuing to attack our work."
The city could ask the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review the case. Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said "the city is currently exploring all legal options to ensure that women obtain access to the time-sensitive reproductive health services they seek."
Amber Banks, a spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, said her organization will keep battling against the pregnancy centers, which she said spread falsehoods about the risks and long-term consequences of abortion.
"People are still being deceived by them and are still being harmed by them," she said. "We are committed to continuing to fight to ensure that people have access to accurate information."
Garbis wrote that the building the Baltimore center operates out of is owned by the Roman Catholic Church, but on its website the center says it is not affiliated with any particular denomination.
The organization does not hide its intention to intervene in the cases of women it calls "abortion vulnerable."
In an August 2016 newsletter posted on its website, the center's staff recounted the case of a teenager they called Jane who came in seeking a pregnancy test. The girl asked about an abortion and after the procedure was described to her, she "stopped the counselor before she was able to complete the explanation, saying; 'Too hard to hear, I can't listen!'"
"The counselor wisely guided the discussion to other options," the post reads.
Even though city officials said the law was designed to protect women from false advertising, Garbis wrote that it was drafted so broadly that a center "that does no advertising would nonetheless be swept up in the City's regulatory fervor, leaving just another free speech casualty."
Garbis wrote that at least in the case of the Center for Pregnancy Concerns, the city could not prove that any women had been harmed by going there or that the law was written carefully enough to protect women from false advertising.
When women called seeking an abortion after seeing the center's ads on local buses, the center's staff had been upfront that they would not refer the caller to get one, Garbis concluded. What's more, Garbis wrote, the center displays a brochure noting that it will not refer women for an abortion.
"There's no evidence that anyone's harmed by these centers," said Mark Rienzi, a lawyer who represented the Baltimore center. "These centers help women; they don't harm women."
Despite Garbis' skeptical and sometimes scathing tone toward the city's position, he declined to strike down the law altogether. Instead, he ruled based on specific details of the way the Center for Pregnancy Concerns operates and wrote that while a similar center in Baltimore might be able to bring a case he did not have enough evidence to reach a broader conclusion.
Similar requirements elsewhere have had mixed fates. A federal judge ruled in 2014 against a Montgomery County law that would have required the pregnancy centers to post signs saying they don't have medical staff available and that officials recommend pregnant women see a licensed medical provider.
In New York, a federal appeals court upheld that kind of language while ruling against disclaimers notifying women that centers don't provide abortions. A group of New York centers asked the Supreme Court to take up the case, but it declined.
Banks said defending the laws can be challenging because women who have had bad experiences with the centers can be unwilling to talk publicly.
"It is often a private topic," she said.