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.
City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has since become mayor, introduced the measure.
She had been approached by NARAL and Planned Parenthood with a request to craft the legislation, the womensenews.org article said.
Ms. Rawlings-Blake, whose office did not respond to several requests for comment, has since been feted for her stance by both organizations.
On April 8, she was the keynote speaker at a Planned Parenthood of Maryland gala at the Tremont Grand Historic Venue. On May 16, she was the special guest at NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland's annual Mother's Day brunch at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park Museum. The brunch, which was open to the public, was advertised on NARAL's website.
But a Washington Times reporter who signed up for the lunch was turned away at the door. Executive Director Jennifer Blasdel told the reporter that NARAL's national headquarters was not involved with her organization's campaign against Maryland crisis pregnancy centers.
When asked Thursday to confirm the report in womensenews.org, NARAL's headquarters in the District would only release a statement saying that crisis pregnancy centers "mislead women about their health care options."
"Our affiliates in Maryland, Texas, Virginia, and other places are working to ensure that women in their communities aren't misinformed or manipulated," according to spokesman Ted Miller. "If a CPC is not engaging in these harmful tactics, then it has nothing to worry about."
Buoyed by their success in Baltimore, pro-choicers have similar campaigns planned nationwide. In April, Austin, the Texas state capital, became the second city after Baltimore to pass a law regulating crisis pregnancy centers. Called the Limited Service Pregnancy Centers Disclosure Ordinance, it mandates crisis pregnancy centers to post signs saying they don't provide abortions or birth control. Failure to do so could mean a $450 fine.
NARAL took credit for the law, saying in an April 8 press release that it was enacted after its Texas affiliate investigated three crisis pregnancy centers in Austin, "all of which provided misinformation about abortion or birth control and none of which would provide a referral, even for birth control."