Montgomery County has paid $375,000 in attorney fees, costs and damages to a Silver Spring pregnancy center that challenged a county requirement that pregnancy centers post signs to warn women if they are not being advised by medical professionals. In March, the court struck down the law.
Centro Tepeyac Women’s Center in Silver Spring, one of four limited-service pregnancy centers affected by the law, sued the county in 2010 seeking to overturn the law on the grounds that it restricts freedom of speech.
Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom and co-counsel in the case, said the recent settlement covers what it cost for attorneys to defend “against the unconstitutional law and to restore freedom.” The settlement also include $1 in damages paid to Centro Tepeyac.
“This decision and the fee award both show that when you offer free help and assistance to women, the government should not be attacking you,” Bowman said. County Attorney Marc P. Hansen said the fee payment negates the county’s ability to appeal the March decision. It was the County Council, Hansen said, that chose to settle.
The case centered on a 2010 law passed by the council — acting as the Board of Health — that required pregnancy centers that do not provide abortions or do not provide referrals to abortion clinics to post disclaimers stating the center “does not have a licensed medical professional on staff” and the “Montgomery County Health Officer encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider.” In 2011, before the case went to trial, Judge Deborah K. Chasanow with the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland found that the county could not require anti-abortion pregnancy centers to post signs implying that pregnant women should seek care elsewhere.
However, Chasanow upheld the county’s right to advise women that the centers do not have licensed medical professionals on staff — at least until a trial on the matter had concluded.
Plaintiffs claimed the law forced pro-life pregnancy counselors to advise women against using their services, violating freedom of speech.
The law’s sponsor, former Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At large) of North Potomac said at the time the bill was being considered, that the intention was to caution women that the information they receive at so-called “limited service pregnancy centers” might not be accurate.
In March, Chasanow struck down the entirety of the county’s law, prohibiting the county from enforcing it.
In her opinion Chasanow explained that “the critical flaw for the county is the lack of any evidence that the practices of [limited service pregnancy resource centers] are causing pregnant women to be misinformed which is negatively affecting their health.”
Chasanow went on to say that “when core First Amendment interests are implicated, mere intuition is not sufficient. Yet that is all the County has brought forth: intuition and suppositions.”
Lead attorney for Centro Tepeyac in the case was Mark Rienzi, a law professor at Catholic University and the attorney who won a Supreme Court decision Thursday striking down a Massachusetts law requiring a 35-foot buffer at the entrance abortion clinics.