An anti-abortion group sued the city of Minneapolis on Wednesday to overturn an ordinance that prohibits the obstruction of entrances and driveways to abortion clinics, saying it’s an unconstitutional violation of free speech and freedom of religion.
The ordinance, which was enacted in November, was designed to protect patients of the Planned Parenthood clinic in the Uptown neighborhood from ‘sidewalk counselors’ who try to dissuade them from getting abortions. Pro-Life Action Ministries and several of its staff members filed the challenge in federal court, arguing that the ordinance was a deliberate effort to stifle them.
‘The ministry of pro-life sidewalk counseling is a peaceful interaction with pregnant woman to convey life-affirming alternatives to abortion,’ Erick Kaardal, an attorney for the group, said in a statement. ‘Yet the City of Minneapolis has specifically enacted an ordinance designed to prevent any success at conducting this peaceful interaction by Pro-Life Action Ministries, its staff members or volunteers, and any others involved in similar activities.’
Planned Parenthood officials told the City Council in November that protesters outside the Minneapolis clinic had become more numerous and aggressive since the U.S. Supreme Court last summer overturned the Roe v. Wade decision. Security video showed protesters approaching cars with pamphlets and two people with umbrellas getting into an altercation.
‘There is no such thing as abortion rights without access,’ Council Member Lisa Goodman, the ordinance author, told the council the day the ordinance passed. She said she was confident it would survive a legal challenge.
Planned Parenthood said the ordinance was needed to protect safety in the busy neighborhood.
‘We stand by the necessity and constitutionality of the ordinance,’ Tim Stanley, executive director of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota Action Fund, said in a statement. ‘The ordinance balances the rights of patients, staff, community and protestors. Everyone should be able to get health care, go to the grocery store, drive in their neighborhood and exercise their First Amendment rights.’
Mayor Jacob Frey agreed. ‘This is not about limiting free speech, it’s about protecting community members from being physically disrupted while seeking the reproductive care they need and deserve,’ he said in a statement.
The complaint said PLAM’s counselors walk up to women entering the clinic via the sidewalk or flag down cars entering the parking lot, then attempt to offer help, prayers and information on alternatives to abortion, believing it is their religious duty.
The complaint acknowledged that these actions delay women from entering the clinic, but denied blocking them. It said their actions have led thousands of women to change their minds about getting abortions and that they planned to violate the ordinance. Violations are misdemeanors, so they face a credible threat of prosecution.
A 1994 federal law prohibits using ‘physical obstruction’ to ‘intimidate or interfere with’ people entering health care facilities. Since the late 1990s, the U.S. Supreme Court has heard several cases involving buffer zones outside abortion clinics. In 2014, the high court struck down a law that created a 35-foot protest-free zone outside Massachusetts clinics. Other cases have led to mixed results
In 2020, the justices rejected pleas from activists in Chicago and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to make it easier to protest outside clinics. In 2011, the high court declined to hear a Pittsburgh case, letting stand a lower court decision that said the city’s 15-foot buffer zone for protests did not apply to ‘calm and peaceful’ one-on-one ‘sidewalk counseling.’ A federal appeals court in December temporarily barred the enforcement of a Louisville, Kentucky, buffer zone ordinance.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 12 states, including Minnesota, plus the District of Columbia, prohibit blocking entrances and exits at abortion clinic facilities.