Evangelical Family Sues City Over Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone

An evangelical couple and two of their seven children are suing the city of Portland, Maine, regarding its ordinance that prevents protesters from gathering within 39 feet of the local Planned Parenthood abortion clinic. The family argues in the lawsuit that the ordinance violates their constitutional rights to free speech.

Daniel and Marguerite Fitzgerald of Shapleigh filed their lawsuit in the U.S. district court Wednesday, arguing that the city's buffer zone ordinance violates their First and Fourth Amendment rights found in the U.S. Constitution. The City Council voted late last year to pass the ordinance that would create a 39-foot bubble around the Planned Parenthood clinic on Congress Street after hearing testimony that pro-life protesters were harassing clinic visitors. The Fitzgerald family argues in its lawsuit, however, that their protests have been peaceful.

"[The Fitzgeralds] are faithful Evangelicals motivated to oppose the practice of abortion because of their religious beliefs that abortion is the deliberate destruction of innocent human life," the family's attorney, Stephen Whiting, wrote in the lawsuit, according to Bangor Daily News.

"[They] peacefully pass out literature and Bible tracts in accordance with their faith and in efforts to counsel women seeking abortions. Prior to the ordinance, [they] regularly provided information to women about abortion alternatives, assistance and support to persons entering and/or exiting the facility."

The lawsuit also argues that the ordinance discriminates against who can protest, as often people will stop in front of the Planned Parenthood to smoke or socialize and they are not asked to leave.

"Maine citizens have been using the public streets and sidewalks to debate political, social and religious issues since well before the founding of the United States," the lawsuit says. "[The buffer zone ordinance] essentially and unlawfully privatizes public ways held in the public trust for use by all citizens."

The Fitzgerald family is also being backed by the Thomas More Law Center, which said in a statement that the ordinance "not only prohibits the Fitzgeralds' peaceful sidewalk counseling, but it also has the un-American effect of banning those with the same viewpoint as the Fitzgeralds from a large stretch of the public sidewalk."

Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, told the Portland Press Herald in a prepared statement that the ordinance has ended the harassment and hostility that made patients and staff at the clinic feel uncomfortable. "The atmosphere outside of our health center is one of peaceful coexistence – which shows this law effectively balances the right to privacy with free speech rights."

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a similar case that challenges a Massachusetts state law requiring 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics. The justices are expected to make their decision in mid-2014 and their ruling could have national implications.

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