A crisis pregnancy center in Silver Spring has become the second group in Maryland to sue a Washington-area government over laws that pro-lifers say are part of a national campaign to snuff out anti-abortion speech.
Centro Tepeyac Women’s Center, a 20-year-old Catholic agency on Apple Avenue, sued Montgomery County last week at U.S. District Court in Greenbelt over a Feb. 2 vote by the County Council that created a law requiring crisis pregnancy centers to post certain signs in English and Spanish.
The signs must say that a licensed medical professional is not on staff there and that the county health department advises seeking a licensed health care provider. Failure to post a sign results in a fine of at least $500.
Centro Tepeyac v. Montgomery County is similar to a lawsuit filed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore against the city of Baltimore in March after the city required its crisis pregnancy centers to post signs saying they don’t offer abortions.
“No other business is required to do this,” said Thomas Schetelich, chairman of the board of the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns crisis pregnancy center. “I am a lawyer. I don’t put on my wall what services I do not provide.”
Both lawsuits say Planned Parenthood and other facilities that provide abortions are not required to post similar notification when women visit and don’t receive medical services.
“The government cannot create special speech rules just because people want to talk about pregnancy choices,” said Mark Rienzi, lead counsel for Centro Tepeyac and a law professor at Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law. “And it certainly cannot target pro-life speakers for special sign requirements and fines while leaving speech by abortion clinics entirely unregulated. This new regulation violates every core principle of free speech law.”
According to the lawsuit, the county regulation is vaguely worded to the extent that — aside from the four crisis pregnancy centers in Montgomery County — it could be applied to maternity stores, sidewalk counselors or anyone in a church who talks with women about “pregnancy-related services.”
County counsel Mike Faden said he had not a chance to view the case but, “We are confident the law the council passed is constitutional.”
As part of its exhibit, the lawsuit has included testimony from volunteers at the Silver Spring-based NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland urging County Council members to pass legislation against local crisis pregnancy centers. In 2007 and 2008, the organization sent teams of investigators to 11 crisis pregnancy centers in four counties and the city of Baltimore.
“Every CPC visited provided misleading, or in some cases completely false, information,” said the eight-page report, posted on the organization’s website.
The Alliance Defense Fund, which is part of the legal team involved in the Montgomery County lawsuit, said NARAL’s investigations are part of a nationwide strategy by pro-choice groups to force crisis pregnancy centers nationwide to post signs so that women intending to get abortions will not unwittingly enter.
“The CPCs are taking away their clients,” spokesman Matt Bowman said.
NARAL’s strategy, explained in a Dec. 2 article in womensenews.org, a feminist newsletter, said a “Baltimore model” is being used as a national template to divert customers from the nation’s estimated 2,300 crisis pregnancy centers. The first step is to publish studies on how the centers “mislead women,” said the article. The next step in the strategy is for activists to team up with “sympathetic lawmakers” to pass legislation restricting crisis pregnancy centers.
Thus, on Nov. 23, the Baltimore City Council passed an ordinance as a truth-in-advertising, patient-protection measure in a 12-3 vote.