Represented by Liberty Counsel, two pro-lifers have just filed an appeal over a U.S. District Court judge’s denial to strike down a local abortion facility’s buffer zone law. Drafted by Planned Parenthood, the City Council of Harrisburg enacted “Interference with Access to Health Care Facilities” — better known as a “buffer zone” or “bubble zone” law — in 2012. According to the Women’s Law Project, which represents Planned Parenthood witnesses in the case, “Buffer zones are limited, fixed areas surrounding the entrance of a building designed to protect patients and facility employees from harassment, obstruction, and potential violence.”
Historically, this type of law is specifically — and only — leveraged against pro-lifers outside abortion facilities. Advocates of buffer zone laws say that these ordinances prevent women seeking abortions from being “harassed” for “exercising their bodily autonomy.” Opponents of these laws point out that they are a violation of individuals’ right to free speech on a public sidewalk, in this case providing sidewalk counseling and offering pro-life literature to women seeking abortions.
Liberty Counsel is representing pro-lifers Becky Biter and Colleen Reilly, who first filed their lawsuit in 2016 requesting an injunction against the law, or asking that the law not be enforced. In 2017, U.S. District Court judge Silvia Rambo denied an injunction. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled that “Judge Rambo ignored the First Amendment’s requirement that Harrisburg prove its ordinance did not unconstitutionally burden speech.” Judge Rambo was ordered to assess whether the City of Harrisburg could prove that the buffer zone did not infringe on the pro-lifers’ right to free speech. Unfortunately, Judge Rambo instead flouted the Court of Appeals and responded by upholding her initial ruling refusing to grant the injunction. And so, on May 24, Liberty Counsel filed a second appeal.
Liberty Counsel attorneys point out that legal precedent is in their favor. In 2014, McCullen vs Coakley declared a similar law in Massachusetts unconstitutional. A 2018 book, Black and Pro-Life in America: The Incarceration and Exoneration of Walter B. Hoye, details the story of Pastor Walter B. Hoye, who was jailed in 2009 for violating a bubble zone law in Oakland, California. That law was later declared unconstitutional.
Elsewhere, in January of this year, the New Hampshire House of Representatives refused efforts to repeal a 2014 state buffer zone law, which allows abortion facilities to erect a buffer of up to 25 feet from the facilities. Thus far, no facility has chosen to make use of the law, but Rep. Jeanine Notter (R-Merrimack) stated, “The day the buffer zone is actually posted, I can guarantee that litigation will ensue, costing us millions, and our citizens will have to foot the bill.”
Editor’s Note, 6/22: Edited information about NH’s current buffer zone law for clarification.
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