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Court says government can't force counselors' speech

A federal judge in Maryland has ruled that a county can’t force pro-life pregnancy centers that offer advice, diapers and other help to moms-to-be to post a sign advising women to go to another clinic for help.

The push for the mandatory signs came from the county, which adopted the demands of pro-abortion interests such as the National Abortion Rights Action League as its own.

But as U.S. District Judge Deborah Chasenow found, there simply was no evidence that such signs were needed.

“Even assuming … that [pro-life] centers are presenting themselves as medical providers and thus pregnant women are accepting their misinformation as sound medical advice, the county must still demonstrate the next supposition on the logical chain: that these practices are having the effect of harming the health of pregnant women,” the judge wrote Friday in banning the county from imposing its signage requirement.

“The county has failed this task. NARAL volunteers did not forgo medical care because of the [centers], they were merely testing the system as part of an investigation. Dr. Tillman, the county’s health officer and Rule 30(b)(6) expert, testified that she never received one complaint about [those centers] in the eight years she had been the county’s chief of public health, nor had any evidence that an actual pregnant woman – as opposed to a NARAL volunteer – delayed seeking medical care after patronizing a [center].

“Quite simply, the county has put no evidence into the record to demonstrate that [the centers’] failure clearly to state that no doctors are on premises has led to any negative health outcomes,” the judge said.

According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which worked on the legal particulars of the case involving the Centro Tepeyac center, it was a good sign, because other lawsuits on the same issue are pending in Baltimore, New York City, San Francisco and Austin.

The issue is that pro-abortion interests are demanding that pregnancy counseling centers – which offer advice and sometimes financial help, diapers and and other services – identify prominently and publicly that they don’t have a licensed doctor on staff. In fact, the Montgomery County sign demand was for wording that advised women to go somewhere else.

However, the regulations are worded carefully so that similar advice from pro-abortion centers, such as Planned Parenthood, is exempt from the requirement.

“Pregnancy centers, which offer real help and hope to women, shouldn’t be punished by political allies of abortion sellers,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel Matt Bowman, co-counsel in the case. “The court rightly found no justification whatsoever for the government to force pro-life centers to speak a message designed to drive women away. The government cannot resort to coercing or shutting down someone else’s speech in violation of the First Amendment in order to achieve its political goals.”

ADF said the Montgomery County law forced “limited-service pregnancy centers” and individuals who have a “primary purpose” of offering information about pregnancy to post signage noting that a medical professional is not on staff and that the county health department advises them to speak with a licensed medical professional.

“The county intentionally crafted the law so that it doesn’t apply to pro-abortion centers, such as Planned Parenthood, even if counseling is offered there by non-medical persons,” ADF said.

The opinion of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland issued in Centro Tepeyac v. Montgomery County explained that “the critical flaw for the county is the lack of any evidence that the practices of [the pregnancy care centers] are causing pregnant women to be misinformed which is negatively affecting their health.”

The ruling said that “when core First Amendment interests are implicated, mere intuition [of a problem] is not sufficient. Yet that is all the county has brought forth: intuition and suppositions.”

The judge pointedly noted that “the only people” alleging a problem were “universally volunteers from a pro-choice organization sent to investigate [their] practices.”

The judge’s permanent injunction blocks the Montgomery County, Md., law entirely.