- Associated Press - Friday, January 17, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - A federal appeals court handed a victory Friday to supporters of a New York City law designed to regulate anti-abortion organizations providing non-medical pregnancy services.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals restored components of the law that require crisis pregnancy centers to disclose whether a licensed medical provider is working at the facility. In a 2-to-1 decision, they said a lower-court judge went too far when he rejected the new law in its entirety and found it too vague.

But it said other aspects of the law were likely unconstitutional, including a requirement that centers disclose whether they provide referrals for abortion, emergency contraception or prenatal care.

The law was passed in 2011. City officials said it protected consumers and demanded truth in advertising. Opponents said it violated free speech rights and was motivated by politics.

The panel’s ruling said the city could force pregnancy centers to make the disclosures about medical providers. Otherwise, the city would be deprived “of its ability to protect the health of its citizens and combat consumer deception in even the most minimal way.”

Saying the law was not impermissibly vague, Judge Rosemary Pooler wrote for the majority that the city had a compelling interest in making sure consumers understand what services they will receive from pregnancy services centers and had passed the law only after lawmakers heard testimony about misleading practices, patient experiences and the dangers of delay in access to reproductive care.

“Such a law is required to ensure that women have prompt access to the type of care they seek,” Pooler said. She said the ruling was similar to conclusions reached by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., last summer. That court returned a lawsuit over a Baltimore law involving pregnancy clinics to the lower court.

Pooler noted testimony showed that the centers were often located near Planned Parenthood facilities and had misleading names and signage. She said the head of a women’s health center also testified that one crisis pregnancy center parked a bus in front of her clinic, and counselors in scrubs offered ultrasounds and harassed her clinic’s patients.

In a partial dissent, Judge Richard Wesley called the law “a bureaucrat’s dream,” saying it contains a deliberately ambiguous set of standards, “thereby providing a blank check to New York City officials to harass or threaten legitimate activity.”

He said he also found the “entire statute is irredeemably vague with respect to the definition of a pregnancy services center” and encourages arbitrary enforcement.

The judge said the city “does not have a right to sweep all those who, for faith-based reasons, think that abortion is not the right choice in with those who would defraud or intentionally mislead women making this important and personal decision.”

The American Center for Law & Justice, whose lawyers argued before the 2nd Circuit, said in a statement it was pleased that “serious constitutional flaws” in the law were recognized by the appeals court but was disappointed it upheld part of the law.

“Today’s decision is also regrettable in that it supports the government’s ability to enforce vague and imprecise definitions in the ordinance that leave organizations in an uncertain position regarding their status under the law,” it said. “The penalties for noncompliance are far too steep for such ambiguity to remain in place.”

Representing two pregnancy centers and a maternity home, lawyers for the Christian public interest law firm Alliance Defending Freedom said in a statement that they and their clients were evaluating their options for appealing the portion of the law upheld by the appeals court.

A city attorney, Nicholas Ciappetta, said the ruling will help “prevent the possibility of deceptive practices by pregnancy service centers.”

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in a statement that the decision will help “to prevent the outrageous deceptions - such as unlicensed individuals dressing in scrubs and performing ultrasounds on pregnant women - that motivated this law.”

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