A faith-based pregnancy center in Willimantic has asked a federal judge for an injunction against a controversial Hartford ordinance that requires the religious facility and others like it to disclose whether their staff carry medical licenses.
The challenge to the local ordinance comes at the same time lawmakers are considering imposing similar rules on a statewide basis. Last month, the legislature’s Public Health Committee advanced a proposal that would halt misleading advertising practices at any of the state’s 25 or so faith-based pregnancy centers.
The capital city began enforcing its ordinance in October. Hartford’s law requires the facilities to notify people if they do not have a licensed medical provider on staff or on site. The centers must post a sign in the window and reception area, and display a similar message on their websites.
Critics of the faith-based institutions have said their staff members sometimes pose as medical workers to lure women and hand out misleading information about abortions.
On Thursday, the nonprofit Caring Families Pregnancy Services filed a federal lawsuit against the city, seeking an injunction to stop the ordinance and claiming its rights had been violated. While its main operations are in Willimantic, Caring Families runs a mobile care unit that travels throughout the state, including Hartford.
“This challenge seeks to protect the right of a pro-life, faith-based pregnancy care center to exercise its religious beliefs and to speak about those beliefs so it can help women with concerns about pregnancy and motherhood,” attorneys for the group wrote in the lawsuit.
In an interview, Denise Harle, a lawyer for the organization, said the services offered by Caring Families do not require supervision by a licensed medical provider. The signs that the nonprofit is forced to post “make it sound like the center isn’t qualified to do what it’s doing,” she said.
Caring Families offers ultrasounds, pregnancy testing, counseling, adoption referrals, parenting classes and Bible studies, among other resources, at no cost.
“It’s not something the city of Hartford requires for any other industry, entity, business – they’ve singled out this particular set of people,” Harle said. “Pregnancy centers should be free to serve women and offer them support without fear of unjust government punishment. The government doesn’t have any business steering women away from life-affirming help.”
Caring Families also asked the court to declare that Hartford’s ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise of Religion, Freedom of Speech, Establishment, Due Process and Equal Protection clauses, and that it infringes on state law. The group is seeking unspecified damages and attorneys’ fees.
Howard Rifkin, Hartford’s corporation counsel, said he is confident the city’s edict will stand up in court.
“The ordinance is carefully crafted and does not attempt to impinge upon free speech or freedom of religion,” he said. “Rather, it seeks to ensure that women seeking reproductive counseling and services are fully informed about the nature of the services provided by these centers. The city of Hartford will vigorously defend this ordinance.”
Peter Wolfgang, head of the Family Institute of Connecticut and a vocal opponent of Hartford’s mandate, praised Caring Families for bringing the lawsuit.
“We told the city that they would likely be sued for targeting the free speech of pro-lifers and that they would likely lose in court,” he said Thursday. “We are gratified to see that our first prediction has come true. We hope the second one does, too.”
Hartford’s city council approved the hot-button ordinance in December 2017 with the aim of enforcement beginning in July 2018.
The city suspended its plans in June 2018 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California law that required crisis pregnancy centers to tell clients they can access free and low-cost abortions. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the court’s majority opinion that California had unlawfully compelled the faith-based centers to give women information inimical to their beliefs.
But Hartford leaders announced in September that, after consulting with lawyers, they would move ahead with enforcing the local regulation. Mayor Luke Bronin said the city’s mandate was “a very simple, narrowly tailored disclosure,” unlike the California law that required more affirmative statements by the religious institutions.
The city’s health and human services department began enforcement the following month. Fines of $100 a day may now be levied against centers that breach the ordinance.
In Hartford, officials have targeted a facility on Jefferson Street called the Hartford Women’s Center, located just steps from an abortion clinic. They said the women’s center was opened there to intercept patients headed for the clinic.
Efforts to pass a statewide regulation during last year’s legislative session were unsuccessful. Advocates pressed forward again this year, despite heavy opposition from supporters of the faith-based centers.
Under the measure approved by the Public Health Committee, Connecticut’s attorney general could seek a court injunction to stop the deceptive practices. Faith-based centers found in violation of the law may be required to distribute “corrective” advertising, post a notice that corrects the false information, or pay a fine.
The bill still needs approval from the House and Senate.
Harle said she hopes the lawsuit will give lawmakers pause.
This story originally appeared on the website of The Connecticut Mirror, www.ctmirror.org.