By George P. Matysek Jr.
BALTIMORE (CNS) – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down a Baltimore, Md., ordinance that would have forced pro-life pregnancy centers in the city to post signs stating they do not provide or refer for abortions or contraceptives.
The 3-0 decision Jan. 5 upholds a lower federal court’s ruling.
The Baltimore City Council passed the law on a 12-3 vote in 2009, despite the objections of then-Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, who argued that the measure violated the right to free speech. He also contended that the law unfairly targeted pro-life pregnancy centers, while failing to require abortion providers to post similar signs indicating what services they do not provide.
Archbishop William E. Lori, his successor, continued a battle against the law as it faced multiple court challenges over the past several years.
“We are grateful to the court for this important First Amendment precedent, which notably rejects the argument that a nonprofit’s speech about important social issues constitutes commercial or professional speech,” Archbishop Lori said.
Noting that a related case is pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, the archbishop said, “we look forward to a similar ruling supporting the freedom of religious nonprofits to help those in need and to speak clearly about important social issues.”
The Baltimore law, which would have imposed a $150 daily fine on pregnancy centers that fail to post the mandated signs, was the first of its kind in the nation. It affected the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, a pro-life, Baltimore-based outreach that provides free services to 1,200 women annually. Some of its services have been offered in facilities owned by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
“These pregnancy centers exist to provide material and emotional support to young women in need and their families,” Archbishop Lori said. “These are small, volunteer-driven beacons of hope in a city in need of hope.”
The centers provide formula, diapers, baby clothes, strollers and other items without charge to “poor and vulnerable mothers in the most challenged neighborhoods in our community, including the center operating out of St. Ann’s Catholic Church on Greemount Avenue in East Baltimore,” the archbishop said.