A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Baltimore cannot require faith-based pregnancy counseling centers to post disclaimers noting they won't assist clients in receiving abortions or birth control.
The three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., voted 2-1 to uphold a lower court's ruling that the ordinance was unconstitutional — drawing praise from Catholic leaders who had opposed the ordinance and a defense of the law from MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake, its original sponsor.
The 2009 ordinance, which Rawlings-Blake sponsored when she was City Council president, drew national attention and was challenged in court by the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church and then-BaltimoreArchbishop Edwin F. O'Brien.
While the city said such centers had provided misleading information in the past and the city had a vested interest in protecting the public health by ensuring honest advertising of services, critics of the ordinance derided it as an assault on anti-abortion beliefs and freedom of speech.
In January 2011, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis struck down the ordinance, ruling that the disclaimer requirement violated the center's constitutional right to free speech.
"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 method," Garbis wrote. "The Government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, require a 'pro-life' pregnancy-related service center to post a sign."
In the court's majority opinion issued Wednesday, in which he was joined by Circuit JudgeG. Steven Agee, Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote that through the ordinance, the city had required the center "to participate in the City's effort to tell pregnant women that abortions are available elsewhere as a morally acceptable alternative, contrary to the moral and religious beliefs of the Pregnancy Center."
Circuit Judge Robert King dissented, criticizing the majority opinion as, "in a word, indefensible," in part because it denied the city discovery on a key argument that the ordinance concerned only commercial speech.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, who sponsored the ordinance at the behest of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, said the mayor disagrees with the ruling and stands behind the ordinance.
"The City Solicitor will carefully review the ruling and consider all legal options going forward," O'Doherty said in a statement. "The law itself would not have been necessary if there were not serious and compelling evidence that centers provided false and misleading medical information to vulnerable women."
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, in turn, lauded the ruling.
"At a time when religious freedom is being challenged on many fronts, this ruling represents a major victory for the First Amendment and for those people who seek to live their lives and their faith according to it," said Archbishop William E. Lori, who is in Rome, in a statement. "I applaud the Court for recognizing that these centers were being targeted for their pro-life views and for sending a strong message to the rest of the nation that these kinds of onerous, discriminatory laws have no place in a nation founded on freedom."