Court Strikes Down Md. County's 'Forced Speech' Law Targeting Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers

A federal judge in Maryland on Friday struck down a county law that forced pro-life pregnancy counselors to advise women against using their services. The law mandated a signage that the county health department advises them to speak with a licensed medical professional.

The permanent injunction granted by the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland prohibits the Montgomery legislation known as "forced speech" law from being enforced effective immediately, according to Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the Centro Tepeyac center in the case.

The law, which was struck down in its entirety, was crafted in a way that it didn't apply to pro-abortion centers, such as Planned Parenthood, even if counseling is offered there by non-medical persons, ADF said in a statement.

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The nonprofit legal group called the ruling "another positive sign in the nationwide battle against such ordinances," saying that other lawsuits are currently taking place in Baltimore, New York City, San Francisco, and Austin, Texas.

The law forced "limited-service pregnancy centers" and individuals who have a "primary purpose" of offering information about pregnancy to post signage noting that a medical professional is not on staff and that the county health department advises them to speak with a licensed medical professional.

"Pregnancy centers, which offer real help and hope to women, shouldn't be punished by political allies of abortion sellers," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Matt Bowman, who was co-counsel in the case. "The court rightly found no justification whatsoever for the government to force pro-life centers to speak a message designed to drive women away. The government cannot resort to coercing or shutting down someone else's speech in violation of the First Amendment in order to achieve its political goals."

The opinion of the court explained that "the critical flaw for the County is the lack of any evidence that the practices of [the pregnancy care centers] are causing pregnant women to be misinformed which is negatively affecting their health." It noted that "when core First Amendment interests are implicated, mere intuition [of a problem] is not sufficient. Yet that is all the County has brought forth: intuition and suppositions."

"Even assuming … that centers are presenting themselves as medical providers and thus pregnant women are accepting their misinformation as sound medical advice, the county must still demonstrate the next supposition on the logical chain: that these practices are having the effect of harming the health of pregnant women," Judge Deborah Chasenow wrote.

"Quite simply, the county has put no evidence into the record to demonstrate that failure clearly to state that no doctors are on premises has led to any negative health outcomes," the judge said.

The judge also explained that the only people who alleged a "misinformation problem" on the part of pregnancy care centers "were universally volunteers from a pro-choice organization sent to investigate [their] practices."

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