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Appeals court strikes down Baltimore law requiring pregnancy centers to post 'no abortion' disclaimers

(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)Pro-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington March 2, 2016.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down a Baltimore City ordinance that required pregnancy centers to post disclaimers that they do not offer or refer women for abortions.

The ordinance requires unlicensed pregnancy centers to post notices that "conspicuously state in English and Spanish that they do not provide nor refer women for abortions or birth control services."

On Friday, a three-judge panel unanimously ruled that the ordinance violated the First Amendment free speech rights of the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, a Christian nonprofit that provides prenatal services and counsels women on abortion alternatives.

"The compelled speech at issue here raises particularly troubling First Amendment concerns. At bottom, the disclaimer portrays abortion as one among a menu of morally equivalent choices. While that may be the city's view, it is not the center's," the court stated.

The city has argued the ordinance was necessary to prevent women seeking abortions from being misled by pro-life pregnancy centers and reduce the potential health risks from waiting too long to obtain the procedure.

However, Judge Harvie Wilkinson III, who wrote the court's majority opinion, stated that the city was unable to provide a single example of a woman who entered the Greater Baltimore Center's waiting room under the wrong impression that an abortion could be obtained there.

"What the record does show is affirmative advocacy of abortion alternatives by a lawful non-profit group. None of the public advocacy of alternatives, however, suggests that the center would provide help or assistance in obtaining an abortion," Wilkinson wrote, according to The Hill.

The court also concluded that the ordinance represented an impermissible attempt by the city to "use compelled speech as a weapon to run its ideological foes into the ground."

Friday's decision upheld a district court ruling that found that the ordinance violated the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause because it was not specifically tailored to "accomplish a compelling government interest."

Suzanne Sangree, a lawyer who argued Baltimore's appeal, said that the city was disappointed with the ruling and may appeal to the Supreme Court.

The ruling came as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear a similar case in California. The high court will be deciding in June whether a California law violates the free speech rights of pregnancy centers opposed to abortion by requiring signs about how to obtain state-sponsored services including abortion and contraception.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra argued that the law, which was upheld by a federal appeals court in 2016, helps inform women about their options. Sangree noted that the city is also considering plans to submit a brief in the California case.

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