City Sidewalks May Be Next Legal Battleground for Pro-Life Advocates

American Center for Law and Justice is defending one New York counselor's right to freedom of speech near abortion clinics

Mary Devine has been serving as a pro-life counselor on a public sidewalk in front of a Bronx, New York, abortion facility for the past 15 years. But she may have to stop her activities due to a 2009 NYC law potentially criminalizing the act of love, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) reported a few days ago.

The ACLJ is a conservative, Christian-based watchdog headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Local police have told Devine she could be in violation of the law if she “follows and harasses” anyone within 15 feet of a “reproductive health care facility,” the organization dedicated to the defense of constitutional liberties continued.

Pro-life activists have long used sidewalk counseling to share messages of respect for all life and to reach out to women in distress who may have nowhere else to turn — but that now appears in peril.

“Sidewalk counseling is about advocating for the women who are in a crisis situation. The people engaged in this ministry are there to pray, to listen, and to provide options,” Maggie DeWitte, executive director of Iowans for LIFE, told LifeZette. “When you are in a crisis situation, it’s a breath of fresh air to have someone advocating for your best interest and who genuinely cares about you as a person.”

She added, “We hear countless stories of women who are praying for a sign when they enter an abortion clinic — a sign that will tell them they don’t need to make this decision to end the life of their unborn child. Oftentimes, that sign is a sidewalk counselor who is present and willing to walk along this hurting woman.”

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The ACLJ has filed a lawsuit on Devine’s behalf, challenging the constitutionality of the law.

“Our lawsuit says that this sort of suppression of free speech cannot be tolerated under the First Amendment,” the ACLJ reported. “We argue that the ‘follow and harass’ section of the New York Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act is unconstitutionally vague, significantly over-broad, and not narrowly tailored as those terms are applied in a long line of Supreme Court decisions construing the limits of government attempts to curtail free speech in traditional public places like city sidewalks.”

Devine could face penalties of up to $1,000 and six months of jail time on Riker’s Island if she fails to comply with the 15-foot buffer area rule, the ACLJ further explained.

Related: Babies with Down Syndrome Deserve Protection Before Birth

Levine’s approach to sidewalk counseling is to “approach women seeking abortions and speak with them in quiet, private conversations, listen to their concerns, and then offer them help with whatever problems they are experiencing that are driving them to the decision to abort,” as the ACLJ noted.

It will be interesting indeed to see what happens as this lawsuit moves forward.

Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and regular contributor to LifeZette.

(photo credit, homepage image: DSC0873, CC BY 2.0, by Jordan Uhl; photo credit, article image: Starting to Get Crowded!, CC BY-SA 2.0, by University of Toronto Students for Life)

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