This Friday, September 14, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will hear oral arguments concerning a New York City ordinance that targets pro-life pregnancy centers.
The ordinance requires pregnancy centers—facilities that offer free, non-medical assistance to women who are or may become pregnant—to include lengthy disclaimers in both English and Spanish in all of their advertisements, on signs posted in their lobbies, on their websites, and in any phone or in-person conversation regarding the services that they offer. The ordinance imposes substantial financial penalties for non-compliance; a facility that fails to comply with the ordinance for one month could face $76,000 in fines. The intent and effect of the law is to single out facilities that oppose abortion for disfavored treatment, while abortion-providing facilities are exempt from the law.
In the litigation, the ACLJ represents The Evergreen Association (Expectant Mother Care Pregnancy Centers-EMC Frontline Pregnancy Centers) and Life Center of New York (AAA Pregnancy Problems Center), which operate numerous pro-life pregnancy centers across New York City. The ordinance would prevent these Plaintiffs from using certain forms of advertising and would significantly increase the cost of other forms of advertising.
The ACLJ has alleged that the ordinance violates the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of the press, and due process of law guaranteed to the Plaintiffs by the United States and New York Constitutions. Similar ordinances have been struck down in whole or in part by federal judges in Baltimore and Montgomery County, Maryland.
Last July, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the City of New York from enforcing the ordinance, concluding that there was a high likelihood that the ordinance violated the Plaintiffs’ free speech rights and was impermissibly vague. The judge stated that the law was not comparable to laws that regulate commercial advertising because the pregnancy centers offer assistance for free in furtherance of their religious and charitable missions. In addition, the judge concluded that there are multiple ways for the City of New York to protect its interests, including through the neutral enforcement of existing laws, without forcing the pro-life pregnancy centers to speak a government-crafted message.
The City of New York appealed the judge’s decision to the Second Circuit, and briefs were filed by both sides from October 2011 to February 2012. The case was consolidated with another lawsuit brought by pro-life facilities that are or may be subject to the ordinance’s requirements. A panel of three judges will hear oral argument and subsequently issue a decision.