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Suit Claims Hartford Ordinance Favors Abortion Groups, Impinges Pro-Life Work

Hartford City Hall.

Hartford City Hall. Photo: Google

A pro-life, faith-based pregnancy care center has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Hartford, claiming a recent ordinance targets its mobile care unit because of its views on abortion.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, notes that abortion clinics, community health centers and other health care entities are exempt from the ordinance. The ordinance exempts any facility or office that the state or federal governments license to provide medical or pharmaceutical services. The ordinance took effect Oct. 1, 2018.

"Hartford is intent on interfering with certain views about life, pregnancy and motherhood," the lawsuit states. "Hartford has thus crafted a speaker-based, viewpoint-based law targeting speech only of speakers espousing certain pro-life moral, religious, and philosophical beliefs."

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Willimantic-based Caring Families Pregnancy Services Inc., and its mobile care units, is asking the court to enjoin enforcement of the ordinance and to declare it unconstitutional. The ordinance, the lawsuit says, targets pro-life pregnancy resource centers such as the mobile care units.

At the crux of the lawsuit, which claims Hartford's ordinance violates the laws of Connecticut and the U.S. Constitution, is the "compelled speech" part of the ordinance, which mandates that pregnancy resource centers, such as mobile care units, make certain required statements, including to disclose if it doesn't have a licensed medical provider on the premises at all times. In addition, the lawsuit claims, some parts of the ordinance are vague and unclear.

The lawsuit states: "Although Mobile Care has a licensed medical provider, either a registered nurse or a certified ultrasound technician or both, on its units at most times it is in operation, Mobile Care is uncertain whether Hartford may apply the compelled speech provision to Mobile Care, because of the vague working of the ordinance and implementing rule."

There are times, the lawsuit states, "when Mobile Care's licensed medical providers are not on the premises. Under the ordinance, Mobile Care would be required to meet the burdensome compelled speech at all times, permanently posted both in and out of its facility and on its website, and over the telephone in conversations with potential clients." The lawsuit states that "no other entities are required to post the signs or make the verbal statement."

Neither Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, nor Thea Montanez, chief of staff and interim chief operating officer, responded to a request for comment.

In a statement emailed to the Connecticut Law Tribune Friday afternoon, Hartford Corporation Counsel Howard Rifkin said: "The City of Hartford is confident that our ordinance meets the constitutional tests set forth in the recently decided US Supreme Court Case, NIFLA v. Becerra.  The ordinance is carefully crafted and does not attempt to impinge upon free speech or freedom of religion.  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.”

The mobile care units provide free services in Hartford a few days each month. Caring Families, which operates the mobile care units, offers free pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, adoption referrals, parenting classes, Bible studies, and support groups. As a pro-life group, they do not offer any types of abortion services. That is where there is a double standard, according to those who filed the suit.

The Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a pro-life organization, filed the lawsuit. Representing the plaintiffs is attorney Patricia Stewart of Stewart Law Offices. Stewart did not respond to a request for comment.

The alliance posted a statement regarding the lawsuit on its website.

"No woman should feel alone, hopeless, or without options during an unexpected pregnancy,” said ADF legal counsel Denise Harle. “Hartford has no business implying—by force of law—that Caring Families and other pro-life care providers are anything but competent and tolerant. Worse still, Hartford claims it’s promoting comprehensive information about health care but only censors and interferes with specific views about life, pregnancy, motherhood—a double standard that’s both troubling and unconstitutional.”

In addition to seeking to have the court rule that the ordinance is unconstitutional, the lawsuit also seeks compensatory and nominal damages. It cites six causes: violation of the First Amendment, establishment clauses; violation of the First Amendment, freedom of speech; violation of the First Amendment, free exercise of religion; violation of the First Amendment, freedom of expressive association; violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, procedural due process; and freedom of religion.