Baltimore’s spending board voted Wednesday to pay $1.1 million to cover a Christian pregnancy center’s legal fees after a federal court ruled a city law violated the center’s First Amendment rights.
The Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns sued the city and the case wound its way through the legal system for nearly a decade before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in January.
The organization challenged the city after it passed a law in 2009 designed to require pregnancy clinics that don't provide abortions to post signs in their waiting rooms to disclose that information. It was aimed at protecting women from what the city considered deceptive advertising.
The Center for Pregnancy Concerns argued the law violated its right to freedom of speech. The center, which calls itself a Christian ministry, helps pregnant women with counseling and support services but does not perform abortions or provide referrals to clinics that do.
The federal appeals court — one rung below the U.S. Supreme Court — sided with the pregnancy center.
“The city has considerable latitude in regulating public health and deceptive advertising,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in the opinion. “But Baltimore’s chosen means here are too loose a fit with those ends, and in this case compel a politically and religiously motivated group to convey a message fundamentally at odds with its core beliefs and mission.”
The Supreme Court declined to review the decision. But the nation’s highest court in June ruled against a similar California law regulating pregnancy centers that do not offer abortions. That law required such centers to let women know in some instances that they could seek abortions and that the state might pay for the procedures.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a concurring opinion that those requirements threatened the centers’ freedoms to not promote abortion.
“The state requires primarily pro-life pregnancy centers to promote the state’s own preferred message advertising abortions,” Kennedy wrote. “This compels individuals to contradict their most deeply held beliefs, beliefs grounded in basic philosophical, ethical, or religious precepts, or all of these.”
The city’s lawyers watched the California case closely and hoped a different ruling might have provided new paths forward.
City Solicitor Andre Davis was recused from Wednesday’s vote as he was a member of the 4th Circuit while the case was there.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young cast the lone vote among the five-member board against the payout. After the Board of Estimates meeting, he said the challenge by a religious organization, “knowing that Baltimore is a poor city, is in poor taste.”
City documents say the payout “reflects a considerable discount in compromise of plaintiff’s fee claim.” It was not immediately clear how much the legal fees were, but as the prevailing plaintiff in a constitutional rights case, the group is entitled to reimbursement of reasonable costs of litigation.
Thomas Schetelich, chairman of the pregnancy center’s board of directors, said he was sorry the city continued to appeal the case.
“I am enormously disappointed that there would be this level of litigation over what we thought was a very clear violation of the First Amendment,” he said. “We have no joy that we’ve won this case. We have no joy that we had to litigate this for nine years.”
Then-Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake introduced the legislation in 2009 at the urging of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. It made Baltimore the first U.S. city to impose such a regulation on faith-based organizations that discourage abortion.
Her bill followed accusations that crisis pregnancy centers in Maryland and nationwide were attempting to deceive clients with misleading information so they could pressure women against receiving abortions.
It quickly drew the ire of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore and other organizations whose members’ religious beliefs lead them to oppose abortion. A former Baltimore archbishop was also a plaintiff in the case. One of the center’s four locations uses space provided by the Catholic church.
The Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns has branches in Baltimore, Arbutus, Dundalk and Essex.
On its website’s list of Frequently Asked Questions, the center says: “We do not perform or refer for abortions because of the possible physical and emotional risks involved.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.