(AP) - A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that two ordinances requiring Maryland anti-abortion pregnancy counseling centers to post certain disclaimers are unconstitutional.
In a pair of 2-1 decisions, a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the centers that the Baltimore city and Montgomery County ordinances violated their free-speech rights.
Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, the Archbishop of Baltimore and a Roman Catholic church challenged a Baltimore city ordinance requiring pregnancy counseling centers that don't provide abortions or birth control to post disclaimers stating so. The city claimed the ordinance regulates "commercial speech" and therefore is not entitled to the same level of protection as noncommercial communication.
U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis ruled in favor of the centers, however, and the appeals court upheld his decision.
"The Pregnancy Center seeks to provide free information about pregnancy, abortion, and birth control as informed by a religious and political belief," Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote in the majority opinion, which was joined by Judge G. Steven Agee. "This kind of ideologically driven speech has routinely been afforded the highest levels of First Amendment protection, even when accompanied by offers of commercially valuable services."
In a dissent, Judge Robert King wrote that the majority "prematurely and unfairly discounted the real possibility" that the ordinance targets only commercial speech.
"The court's decision is, in a word, indefensible," King wrote.
The city of Baltimore could appeal the ruling to the full appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court. Suzanne Sangree, the attorney who argued the case for the city, was on vacation and unavailable for comment and City Solicitor George Nilson did not immediately return a telephone message.
David William Kinkopf, attorney for the pregnancy center, also did not immediately respond to a voicemail message.
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore praised the appeals court's ruling.
"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," Lori said in a written statement.
In the other case, Centro Tepeyac Women's Center challenged the ordinance in Montgomery County, an affluent suburb of Washington. That ordinance required the center to post a sign stating that it does not have a licensed medical professional on staff, and that "the Montgomery County Health Officer encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider."
The same appeals panel that decided the Baltimore case said both required statements amount to an impermissible government control of speech.
"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," Niemeyer wrote.
Clifford L. Royalty, an attorney for the county, said he had not yet read the opinion and was unsure what action the county might take next.
Mark Rienzi, attorney for Centro Tepeyac, did not immediately return a telephone message.