The Archdiocese of Baltimore has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the country's oldest crisis pregnancy center, claiming the city has enacted a biased ordinance that discriminates against pro-life organizations.
In a lawsuit filed last week in federal court, the archdiocese took on a new city ordinance, which had heavy backing from pro-choice and feminist groups, that requires crisis pregnancy centers to post prominent signs stating they do not dispense contraception or perform abortions.
It is the first such ordinance in the country, according to the archdiocese.
The archdiocese donates space to the independently owned Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns at St. Brigid Catholic Church on East Avenue.
As the country's oldest crisis pregnancy center, founded in 1980, the Greater Baltimore Center has two other locations: its main offices at 2418 St. Paul St. downtown and a third at St. Rita's Church in Baltimore County, which the ordinance does not affect. The center's three locations see a combined 1,200 visitors a year, in addition to about 8,000 people annually via a hot line, says archdiocesan spokesman Sean Caine.
The ordinance was introduced in 2009 by then-City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has since become the mayor of Baltimore and is one of the defendants named in the lawsuit. She also will be the honored guest at Planned Parenthood of Maryland's gala fundraiser Thursday night at the Tremont Grand Hotel in Baltimore.
The ordinance requires that a "limited-service pregnancy center" post an easily readable sign in English and Spanish stating that the center does not offer abortion and birth control services, nor does it provide referrals.
Centers that fail to comply within 10 days of being cited could be fined up to $150 a day.
The archdiocese calls the ordinance a violation of free speech and exercise of religion and calls the language on the sign a "government-mandated disclaimer." The ordinance targets pro-life groups "for speech regulation only one side of a contentious public, political debate."
Maryland has 40 to 50 crisis pregnancy centers, four of which fall under the Baltimore ordinance.
"Filing a federal lawsuit against the city is a big step and we wish the city had not put us in this position," Mr. Caine said. "However, the principles at issue are so important and the ordinance so clearly violates the law that we felt we needed to file the lawsuit. We believe the ordinance targets these centers because of their pro-life mission."
The archdiocese also asserts the signs are forcing the crisis pregnancy centers to lie. The centers do provide birth control — in a fashion — it said in the lawsuit, in terms of abstinence and natural family planning (NFP), a system by which couples time their sexual intimacy according to a woman's monthly cycle. It quotes a federal Department of Health and Human Services Web site as asserting that NFP and abstinence both constitute birth control.
However, city solicitor George Nilson said the ordinance is constitutional.
"I think we will win," he said, "because we have not done anything by passing this ordinance that violates any provision of the Constitution. We'd been expecting we'd get sued at some point.
"We're making certain pregnancy centers — ones that don't offer a full range of services and referrals — make a factual disclosure. It's a disclosure many, if not all, pregnancy centers post on their Web sites. We are saying that same accurate information posted on your Web site needs to be posted at your facilities."
The Greater Baltimore Center does post the following statement on its cpcforhelp.org site: "We do not perform or refer for abortions because of the physical and emotional risks involved."
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis.
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