MARYLAND

Federal appeals court hears Maryland abortion center free speech case

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(AP) - A federal appeals court heard arguments Friday on whether it's unconstitutional for two Maryland communities to require anti-abortion pregnancy counseling centers to post signs stating that they do not provide medical services.

(Photo courtesy abbybatchelder via Flickr)

Lawyers for the city of Baltimore and Montgomery County urged a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse lower court decisions barring the signs.

The two local governments say the signs are needed because the centers are giving inaccurate information, such as claiming abortions cause cancer and birth control doesn't work.

The centers claim the ordinances violate their free-speech rights. A federal judge agreed in the Baltimore case, declaring the city's ordinance unconstitutional.

Another judge put most of the Montgomery County ordinance on hold while a lawsuit filed by Centro Tepeyac Women's Center makes its way through the courts. Clifford L. Royalty, an attorney for the county, told the appeals court that the centers are dispensing medical advice without a license.

He said the government has a compelling interest in combatting such abuse, and chose the signs as the way to do it.

"It's strictly a disclosure in the nature of a consumer protection measure," he said. "It's not triggered by anyone's point of view on abortion."

But Mark Rienzi, an attorney for Centro Tepeyac, said the government has no proof of any woman being harmed by the center's activities. "Mere speculation and conjecture cannot create a compelling interest," he said.

"There is no proof of a single pregnant woman who believed Centro Tepeyac was a medical clinic."

Rienzi compared the clinic's counseling to discussions about the health effects of smoking, which are not limited to medical professionals.

Judge Paul V. Niemeyer seemed to find merit in the analogy.

"There's a distinction between practicing medicine and talking about it," he said.

The Baltimore case, which is similar to the one in Montgomery County, was brought by the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, the Archbishop of Baltimore and a Roman Catholic church. The appeals court typically rules several weeks after hearing arguments.

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