It was a First Amendment victory for everyone -- not just people of faith. Last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Montgomery County cannot force a pro-life pregnancy counseling center to post a public disclaimer meant to discourage pregnant women from using its services.
Centro Tepeyac in Silver Spring offers free counseling and other services to pregnant women, but does not provide or refer them for abortions. In 2010, Montgomery County ordered the center to post signs in English and Spanish stating 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."
Centro Tepeyac faced steep fines if it did not comply, so it went to court. A district court judge struck down the first part of the forced disclosure, but upheld the second part on the grounds that it "does not require any other specific message and in neutral language states the truth."
However, in an appeal filed by lawyers for the Washington-based Alliance Defense Fund, federal Appellate Judge Paul Niemeyer cited a Supreme Court decision pointing out that "even supposedly neutral and fact-based compelled disclosures can imperil free speech." The government, "even with the purest of motives, may not substitute its judgment as to how best to speak for that of speakers and listeners."
It's debatable whether Montgomery County had the "purest of motives" when it targeted Centro Tepeyac. However, the disclaimer requirement was an unlawful attempt to undermine the center's free speech rights.
"To be sure, Montgomery County is entitled to believe that pregnancy is first and foremost a medical condition, but it may not compel unwilling speakers to express that view," Judge Niemeyer wrote. "If Montgomery County wishes to 'encourage women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider,' it must, at a minimum, first do so using its own voice."
A similar ordinance in Baltimore aimed at the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns was also struck down. "At a time when religious freedom is being challenged on many fronts, this ruling represents a major victory for the First Amendment and for those people who seek to live their lives and their faith according to it," said Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, who is currently leading a "Fortnight for Freedom" prayer vigil against increasing government encroachments on Americans' religious rights.