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Baltimore pregnancy counseling law being appealed

Pro-life group hits reinstatement

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A national pro-life group is getting involved in the legal battle over a Baltimore law that would require faith-based pregnancy centers to post notices stating they do not offer abortion referrals.

Americans United for Life, a D.C.-based group, filed a brief Tuesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, seeking to provide testimony in an upcoming case about the law, which was passed in 2009 by the Baltimore City Council, then ruled unconstitutional last January in U.S. District Court.

The group wants to submit written testimony, known as an amicus curiae brief, arguing the appeals court should not overturn the January court decision.

If overturned, the law would require pregnancy counseling centers that don't refer visitors for abortion or birth control — often due to moral or religious objections — to post signs on their premises advertising their stance.

The law — sponsored by then-City Council President and current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Democrat — drew the ire of Roman Catholic Archbishop of Baltimore Edwin F. O'Brien. He successfully sued the city on grounds that requiring the centers to post such a message violated their freedom of speech.

The city has since appealed the case. Both sides have begun submitting briefs in the case, but oral arguments have yet to be scheduled.

Supporters have contended the law would protect expectant mothers who are unaware that a pregnancy center is pro-life from unknowingly receiving advice that discourages or ignores abortion as a legal option.

The law would have fined offending centers $200, plus $50 for each day of noncompliance.

"The ordinance is a fairly straightforward truth-in-advertising measure. It offers minimal restrictions on the centers," said Stephanie Toti, an attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights — a pro-choice group acting as co-counsel with the city.

AUL attorney Anna Franzonello said the group was coaxed into the fray by pro-life pregnancy care centers in Maryland and throughout the nation. Baltimore is one of the nation's first cities to pass such legislation, and could be an important battleground in the debate over such laws.

A similar case is also being contested in New York City.

In the Baltimore case, Ms. Franzonello said, AUL hopes to accurately explain the role of faith-based pregnancy centers to combat what she called "false representations" given by city officials that such centers deceive clients by exaggerating abortion's risks.

"The worth of pregnancy care centers is invaluable," she said. "There is no legitimate basis for the ordinance that was enacted against them."

In the District Court case, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis called the law "unenforceable," and said it amounted to a local government overreaching in its control over counseling services.

"Whether a provider of pregnancy-related services is 'pro-life' or 'pro-choice,' it is for the provider — not the government — to decide when and how to discuss abortion and birth-control methods," he wrote in his Jan. 28 opinion.

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