Catholic Free Press

Catholic Free Press Digital Edition

  • Jun
  • 26

Court declares buffer zone unconstitutional

Posted By June 26, 2014 | 1:29 pm | Lead Story #1
Nancy Clark, a wife and mother from Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Worcester, does sidewalk counseling outside Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, 470 Pleasant St., Worcester, where abortions are performed. 
(CFP File Photo)
Nancy Clark, a wife and mother from Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Worcester, does sidewalk counseling outside Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, 470 Pleasant St., Worcester, where abortions are performed. (CFP File Photo)

By William T. Clew
And Catholic News Agency
And Catholic News Service

– Today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Massachusetts state law that imposed a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, in which protesters and pro-life counselors could not enter to speak with patients.
Local people who regularly vigil outside the Planned Parenthood facility on Pleasant Street in Worcester were jubilant about the decision.
“I’m very excited,” said Nancy Clark of Worcester, one of the plaintiffs in the case, “The Holy Spirit is slowly guiding us in the right direction.” She was praying at Planned Parenthood Thursday morning.
“What wonderful news,” exclaimed Sandra Kucharski, communications coordinator for the Worcester 40 Days for Life campaign. “It was not surprisingly unexpected if you know what the First Amendment says and you heard the arguments on both sides.”
“The Diocese of Worcester applauds the unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of the United States supporting the right to free speech on public sidewalks,” it said in a press release.
“In the unanimous opinion of the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts described the petitioners’ role as sidewalk counselors who provide information to clinic clients about alternatives to abortion and offers of assistance. The decision notes that the counselors’ caring demeanor and calm exchanges have been ‘effective means of dissuading women from having abortions.’
“This favorable decision on the unconstitutionality of the 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics will allow those who offer compassionate sidewalk counseling to continue their efforts more effectively,” the diocese release said.

“We continue to teach that exercising free speech in a peaceful and respectful manner is a necessary component of witnessing to the dignity of every person, including the unborn.  We condemn violence as inconsistent with our mission to respect life as a gift from God,” said Allison LeDoux, director of the Respect Life Office and Office of Marriage and Family, in the release.

Another plaintiff, Mark Bashour, has been doing sidewalk counseling in Worcester for 30 years. “Obviously, I am very pleased,” he said. “Now we can get closer and they can hear us much better.”
It was a long, time-consuming three-year process taking the issue to the Supreme Court, he said, “but by winning, now no other states will try to pass a law like this. It is very important.”
The state’s brief on the case argued that the law was “justified solely by legitimate government interests in public safety and health care access.”
However, pro-life challengers to the law said that it infringed upon their constitutionally protected First Amendment right to the freedom of speech. They argued in a legal brief that the law “indiscriminately criminalizes even peaceful, consensual, non-obstructive conversation and leafleting” and that it unfairly targeted certain kinds of speech, namely, pro-life counseling and views.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the buffer law in January 2013, ruling that the First Amendment does not guarantee an audience “available at close range,” and arguing that pro-life counselors still have access to women seeking abortions, even with the 35-foot buffer zone in place.
The Supreme Court overturned the appellate court’s ruling in a rare unanimous vote, saying that the law restricted speech on public streets and sidewalks.
Ms. Kucharski said she was a “little surprised” that the decision of the court was unanimous, “but that speaks to the power of prayer and common sense.”
She was she would spend the afternoon “collecting signatures and floating on a cloud.” She is Worcester coordinator for the Massachusetts Citizens for Life signature campaign drive for a non-binding public policy question that non-hospital abortion facilities that perform more than 10 abortions a year be licensed as clinics and be inspected at least every two years by the state Department of Public Health.
The buffer zone case, McCullen v. Coakley, was brought by several people who volunteer as “sidewalk counselors” outside Planned Parenthood clinics in Boston, Springfield and Worcester. Under a 2007 state law, there are yellow semicircular lines painted 35 feet from the entrances to the clinics, delineating how far away the sidewalk counselors and abortion protesters must stay.
Eleanor McCullen, the lead plaintiff who brought the lawsuit that wound up in the Supreme Court and whose name appears in the decision, said she is “very elated” by the decision. The 77-year-old grandmother, a member of the Boston Archdiocese, said she was happy “from two viewpoints.” One is that the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Massachusetts law establishing the buffer zone was unconstitutional according to the First Amendment.
“It’s wonderful that they see that,” she said. “It restores my faith in the country” that the justices are getting back to recognizing First Amendment rights.
Also, she said, she is glad that she, and other pro-life advocates can be voices for the unborn without the restrictions of a 35-foot buffer zone. She said she can hold quick, one-on-one, personal conversations with “pregnant couples” and “offer help and love.”
“Some won’t want help,” she said. “Others say, ‘we need help. What can you do?’”
Roderick Murphy, director of Problem Pregnancy, a Worcester center which offers alternatives to abortion, said he is “overjoyed by the decision.”
Mr. Murphy, who attended the Supreme Court hearing at which the Massachusetts law was argued, also questioned why federal judges in Massachusetts “failed to rule the way the Supreme Court did. Why are they so blind? Why go to the Supreme Court?”
“Why is it that the Massachusetts Legislature is so enthralled by Planned Parenthood that they pass legislation that removes civil rights from citizens?” Mr. Murphy said.
He said it was incredible to him that people were not allowed to pass out literature and talk to people about pro-life matters when they can do so about other subjects.
Mr. Murphy had predicted that the Supreme Court would rule the 35-foot buffer zone unconstitutional. He said he thought at least five justices would vote that way. But he said he was surprised that the decision was unanimous.
Atty. Michael J. DePrimo of Hamden, Conn., an attorney for the plaintiffs who brought the case before the Supreme Court, called the decision ruling the buffer-zone unconstitutional a “great opinion for pro-life advocates, especially those who wish to engage in one-on-one conversations with men and women outside abortion clinics. Not only did the court rule that the Massachusetts statute was unconstitutional, it brought into question whether any law creating a buffer zone is constitutional.”
Mrs. Clark said she “was in the buffer zone this morning talking to a girl who was going into Planned Parenthood.” She said the girl had approached her to talk so she entered the zone to talk to her.
Mrs. Clark said she noticed new “no trespassing” signs on the fence outside Planned Parenthood and at their driveway but hadn’t yet heard about the Supreme Court decision. “I said to the man I was praying with, ‘We must have won’,” she said.
“We still need a lot of prayers. Now we will be able to talk to the girls without screaming to them,” she said.