Appeals court rules NYC anti-pregnancy center law largely unconstitutional

by Kirsten Andersen / Original Article

NEW YORK CITY, January 17, 2014 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A panel of three federal judges has unanimously ruled unconstitutional a provision in New York City law requiring pro-life crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) to post notices and verbally advise potential clients that they are not full service pregnancy care facilities because they do not offer abortions. The law also requires CPCs to inform clients that the city recommends women who think they may be pregnant visit a ‘licensed provider.’

The ruling partly upheld a lower court decision by Judge William Pauley, who called the law “particularly offensive to free speech principles,” and struck it down in its entirety.

Chris Slattery, founder and CEO of New York’s EMC Frontline Pregnancy Centers

But in a 2-1 decision, the 2nd Circuit appeals panel reinstated one provision of the law requiring CPCs to disclose whether they have a licensed medical provider on staff who performs or directly supervises all services offered at the facility.

That portion of the ruling met with dissent from Judge Richard Wesley, who said the law’s wording was vague enough to give “unbridled discretion” to city officials to determine which facilities must adhere to the requirements. The provision could see CPCs targeted for harassment or even closure by city officials who have made no secret of the fact that they want to shut them down, calling them ‘sham clinics’ for their refusal to offer abortion and, in some cases, contraception.

“Local Law 17 is a bureaucrat’s dream,” Judge Wesley wrote. “It contains a deliberately ambiguous set of standards guiding its application, thereby providing a blank check to New York City officials to harass or threaten legitimate activity.”  Wesley also said the city “does not have a right to sweep all those who, for faith-based reasons, think that abortion is not the right choice in with those who would defraud or intentionally mislead women making this important and personal decision.”

The split decision was met with mixed feelings by CPC owners and their attorneys. They praised the appeals panel for the parts of the law they did strike down but also expressed concerns that the reinstated provision’s wording may cause major problems for CPCs, which – unlike abortion clinics – are generally funded by donations, staffed by volunteers, and offer expensive services to women free of charge.

According to Chris Slattery, the founder and CEO of EMC Frontline Pregnancy Centers and a plaintiff in the case, most CPCs could never afford to hire an “on staff” doctor – they instead rely on volunteer partnerships with pro-life physicians who only come in if they are needed.  Slattery called the provision’s wording “overly broad” and pointed out that the vast majority of services offered by CPCs – pregnancy testing, counseling, ultrasounds and charity donations – do not require any kind of medical license.

“We’re certainly dissatisfied with large portions of this,” Slattery told LifeSiteNews.  “We agree with the dissenting opinion of Judge Wesley … that the entire law should be thrown out.  But we’re pleased … that the pejorative self-descriptions of us being anti-abortion have been thrown out.”

“Pro-life pregnancy centers, which offer free help and hope to women and their preborn children, shouldn’t be punished by political allies of the abortion industry,” said attorney Matt Bowman of Alliance Defending Freedom, who represented a number of CPCs in the case, including Slattery’s. “The appeals court rightly affirmed that the city cannot force pregnancy centers to communicate some city-crafted messages that encourage women to go elsewhere, but the court left one provision in place that still does that. Because this type of compelled speech is not constitutional, we are considering our options for appeal regarding the remaining provision of New York City’s ordinance.”

But Slattery said he thinks it’s just as likely that the city itself will appeal the ruling.  “New York City’s mayor [Bill DeBlasio] has declared and pledged during his campaign that he would do everything possible to regulate and shut down and wreck and cripple what he calls ‘sham clinics,” Slattery told LSN.  “He said if he lost this case, he would appeal it, and he’s certainly lost on some aspects of this case.”

Slattery predicted the ongoing legal battle “could continue for years.”

Asked what he would say to Mayor DeBlasio if given the chance, Slattery told LSN, “We are going to pursue every legal remedy to defend our freedom of speech and our mission to serve the most vulnerable expectant mother population in [New York City], where the abortion rate is nearly double the national average.  We will expand pregnancy centers in this, the abortion capital of America, and defend expectant mothers from a voracious abortion industry that you have disgracefully promised to expand with city tax money, city property, and city support.”

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