On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit upheld a Pittsburgh city ordinance that allows for the creation of buffer zones around abortion facilities, but reinterpreted the law to affirm that the buffer zone does not apply to peaceful, pro-life sidewalk counselors. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the court’s ruling determined that the ordinance, passed by the city council in 2005, does not apply to peaceful pro-life sidewalk counselors who approach people entering abortion facilities.
The Post-Gazette explained, “As long as the sidewalk counselors’ attempts to dissuade women are peaceful, quiet and conducted as one-on-one conversations, they are allowed to take place inside the 15-foot buffer zone around the clinic, the court said.” The ordinance bans people from “knowingly congregat[ing], patrol[ing], picket[ing] or demonstrate[ing]” within buffer zones, which can be established around abortion facilities and a variety of medical buildings.
Despite a 2014 Supreme Court case, McCullen v. Coakley, that unanimously ruled the practice of buffer zones, around abortion facilities or elsewhere, is unconstitutional, cities continue to pass and uphold ordinances like the one in Pittsburgh, and use them to silence pro-life sidewalk counselors.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed the lawsuit that led to Friday’s ruling in 2014 on behalf of pro-life sidewalk counselors who had not been permitted in the 15-foot buffer zone. “As the 3rd Circuit has now held, the government can’t censor peaceful, pro-life conversation on public sidewalks. Citizens have the freedom to share a message of hope and compassion with any mother seeking to make an informed choice about her pregnancy,” ADF Legal Counsel Elissa Graves said in a press release on Friday.
ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot added, “The First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to ban life-affirming expression simply because some pro-abortion politicians or activists demand it, and as the 3rd Circuit’s ruling concludes, Pittsburgh’s ordinance can’t be used to do that as written. No government can carve out public spaces where the Constitution doesn’t apply.”
Nikki Bruni, the lead plaintiff, told the Post-Gazette, “I’m happy about it. I’m encouraged.” She continued, “I’m hoping that many more lives will be saved, that we’ll have a chance to reach more women. We’ll be able to stand closer to the door if we’re trying to offer information to people who are going there. We’ll just have better access to them.”
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