City faces legal action over abortion clinic signage

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The Austin Pregnancy Resource Center on Rio Grande is one of the pregnancy clinics filing suit against the city of Austin because the centers are required to post signs stating that they do not provide abortions or birth control. The pregnancy clinics believe that is a violation of first amendment rights, while Stephen Casey, Vice President of the Texas Center for Defense of Life, believes that political reasons may have been involved as well.

Photo Credit: Victoria Montalvo | Daily Texan Staff

The city of Austin is facing legal challenges over the constitutionality of an ordinance requiring pregnancy resource centers to publicly announce they do not perform abortions, refer individuals to abortion related resources or provide contraception.

The Texas Center for Defense of Life, Law of Life Project, Alliance Defense Fund and Liberty Institute are representing Austin area pro-life pregnancy resource centers who say the city is violating their First Amendment rights as well as attacking their moral position on abortion.

The clinics filing suit are defined by the city code as limited service pregnancy centers and are required to post a notice in both English and Spanish stating, “This center does not provide abortions or refer to abortion providers. This center does not provide or refer to providers of U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved birth control drugs and medical devices.”

Failure to comply with the ordinance is a class C misdemeanor which is the same category as public intoxication and disorderly conduct. Not publishing the information is punishable by a $250 first-time offense.

Stephen Casey, vice president and chief counsel of the Texas Center for Defense of Life, said the city ordinance is clearly violating the Constitution because it is regulating the moral opinions of Austin residents for political reasons.

“The government can’t force people to choose sides between two viewpoints in a political issue,” Casey said. “They passed this ordinance because public opinion on abortion is at an all time low, and they are unfairly trying to compete with pro-life centers.”

Casey said he thinks the lawsuit will be successful because similar ordinances have already been struck down by federal courts as unconstitutional in Maryland and New York.

The lawsuit was officially filed on Thursday and could potentially take up to a year to be decided on, Casey said.

Alexandra Messenger, member of the Feminist Action Project Conference and women’s and gender studies and studio art senior, said the city ordinance is needed to accurately inform women of all the possible resources available to them.

Messenger said pro-life clinics base the information they give to clients on their moral, religious or political agenda, which rules out mentioning abortion or contraceptives.

“For a lot women, these clinics are all that’s available,” Messenger said. “The women hope to get accurate information, but some of these places don’t give it to them.”

Executive director of Austin LifeCare Pam Cobern said in the Oct. 6 press release that the ordinance is unjustifiably punishing businesses that only want to serve the community according to their moral viewpoints.

“We as Texans and American citizens should be allowed to serve the less fortunate in a manner consistent without beliefs, without fear of punishment from a city government that has a political disagreement with our message,” Cobern said.

Photojournalism senior Caryn Werner said she thinks the city should not interfere with the speech rights of private businesses.

Printed on October 11, 2011 as: Clinics challenge law on services offered signs