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Appeals Court Issues Key Ruling Striking Down Abortion Center Buffer Zone Law

by Steven Ertelt
LifeNews.com Editor
November 2
, 2009

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Philadelphia, PA (LifeNews.com) -- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit issued a key decision on Friday that strikes down a buffer zone ordinance in Pittsburgh. The ordinance limits abortion protests there as well as pro-life advocates who want to help women find alternatives outside abortion centers.

The debate revolves around a 2005 bubble zone law that restricted access to public areas surrounding abortion businesses.

The measure prohibits pro-life advocates from coming within 15 feet of the door of any health care facility, which would include abortion centers. Within 100 feet of the entrance, pro-life advocates must stay a distance of eight feet away from anyone heading to the abortion facility.

Alliance Defense Fund attorneys challenged the local law as unconstitutional for prohibiting speech and helped represent a pro-life nurse who challenged the ordinance, which prohibited her from counseling and speaking with women.

“Pro-life advocates shouldn't be prohibited from expressing their beliefs,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel David Cortman.

In March 2008, ADF attorneys appealed her case to the 3rd Circuit and argued in January 2009 for the court to grant a preliminary injunction to halt the ordinance and keep the city from prohibiting her free speech while the case moved forward. The 3rd Circuit went one step further and issued a permanent injunction against the ordinance because it found the law to be unconstitutional.

In its opinion, the 3rd Circuit noted that the ordinance put a burden on free speech that was “unprecedented” and “unduly--and unconstitutionally--onerous.”

“We conclude that the Ordinance burdens substantially more speech than necessary and is thus insufficiently tailored,” the opinion states. “Because we find that the Ordinance’s combination of zones is not narrowly tailored, we hold on the merits that the Ordinance is facially invalid.”

Cortman told LifeNews.com, “We agree with the court’s conclusion that the ordinance violated the free speech rights of pro-life advocates by zoning them out of areas where they have a First Amendment right to speak."

"This decision is significant because the court drew a well-needed line in the sand that cities may not cross; such overbroad and ‘unprecedented’ restrictions on pro-life speech around abortion clinics violate the constitution," he said.

Mary Kathryn Brown, a resident of Pittsburgh who is pro-life and challenged the law, has never trespassed or blocked individuals from entering or leaving abortion facilities, he noted.

The appeals court ruling came after a federal judge denied the injunction.

During a hearing, ADF senior legal counsel David Cortman asked U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer to allow an injunction solely for Brown while the case proceeds to overturn the law.

City attorney Yvonne Schlosberg Hilton claimed the ordinance is very clear and says Brown has failed to show that it limits her rights. She claimed the injunction is in the public's best interest.

Judge Fischer denied the injunction two years later, and ADF appealed her case to the 3rd Circuit on her request that the ordinance be halted while her case is being litigated.

Under the ordinance, individuals are prohibited from speaking (or even locating) in the sidewalk area within 15 feet from any entrance to abortion facilities. Moreover, within 100 feet of clinics, individuals must first obtain consent to approach a person closer than 8 feet away before they are permitted to distribute leaflets or handbills; display a sign; or engage in oral protest, education or counseling.

In January 2006, Brown tried to approach within eight feet of someone entering the Allegheny Reproductive Health Center and was threatened with arrest by a police officer.

Related web sites:
Alliance Defense Fund - http://www.telladf.org


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