Court: Pregnancy center sign law violates Constitution

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Photo - A federal court overturned a Montgomery County requirement that pregnancy resource centers post signs if they don't have licensed medical professionals. (Examiner file photo)
A federal court overturned a Montgomery County requirement that pregnancy resource centers post signs if they don't have licensed medical professionals. (Examiner file photo)
Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye

A Montgomery County requirement that pregnancy resource centers post signs that they do not have licensed medical professionals violates the First Amendment, a federal court has ruled.

The centers, which offer advice and counseling to pregnant women but not abortions or other medical procedures, were required by a 2010 county resolution to post a conspicuous and "easily readable" sign in English and Spanish proclaiming that "the center does not have a licensed medical professional on staff; and the Montgomery County Health Officer encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider."

The medical professional wording was upheld in district court, but the federal Court of Appeals in Richmond overturned the entire resolution as too much government control of speech.

"The government-mandated statement ... suggests to potential clients that the center is not to be trusted and that a pregnancy center's services, like religious counseling or job placement assistance, will usually be inferior to those offered by medical professionals," Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote in the majority opinion. He added that while the county can express its views that a pregnant woman should seek medical attention, it cannot force others to express that view.

The resolution discriminated against those who didn't share county lawmakers' views, said Kay Sanford, spokeswoman for the pro-life group Care Net, which operates the type of centers affected by the law. Officials from Centro Tepeyac, the center that sued, couldn't be reached.

However, County Council President Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda, said he agreed with Judge Robert King, who said in his dissenting opinion that the court had extrapolated meaning from the county's required disclaimers beyond the words' meaning.

The goal was to prevent pregnant women from being misled, said Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large and chairman of the council's Health and Human Services Committee.

"There are facilities where an expectant mother can get real advice, nonjudgmental and nonweighted advice about all the options," he said. "These centers are not those. ... They want the woman to make a certain decision -- that is, to keep the baby."

Berliner said the council would decide whether to appeal by the end of Friday.

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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