Faith-based pregnancy center files federal lawsuit against city of Hartford

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The Caring Families mobile unit as pictured on the agency’s website.

{Update 1:30 p.m. with a comment from the City of Hartford}

A faith-based pregnancy center in Willimantic has asked a federal judge for an injunction against a controversial Hartford order that requires the religious establishment and others like it to disclose whether their staff hold medical licenses.

The challenge to the local ordinance comes as lawmakers consider imposing similar rules statewide. Last month, the legislature’s public health committee brought forward a proposal that would end deceptive advertising practices at one of the state’s 25 faith-based pregnancy centers.

The capital began to enforce its ordinance in October. Hartford Law requires facilities to notify people if they do not have a licensed medical provider on staff or on site. Centers should display a poster in the window and welcome area and post a similar message on their websites.

Critics of faith-based institutions said their staff sometimes posed as medical workers to attract women and spread misleading information about abortions.

Caring Families Nonprofit Pregnancy Services Thursday filed a federal complaint against the city, seeking an injunction to end the ordinance and claiming that its rights had been violated. While his main operations are in Willimantic, Caring Families manages a mobile care unit which travels throughout the state, including Hartford.

“This challenge aims to protect the right of a pro-life and faith-based pregnancy care center to exercise its religious beliefs and speak out about those beliefs so that it can help women concerned about pregnancy and motherhood,” the group’s lawyers wrote in the lawsuit.

In an interview, Denise Harle, an attorney for the organization, said the services offered by Caring Families do not require the supervision of a licensed medical provider. The signs that the nonprofit is being forced to publish “make it look like the center is not qualified to do what it does,” she said.

Caring Families offers ultrasounds, pregnancy tests, counseling, adoption recommendations, parenting classes, and Bible studies, among other resources, at no cost.

“It’s not something the City of Hartford needs for any other industry, entity, business – they picked this particular set of people,” Harle said. “Pregnancy centers should be free to serve and support women without fear of unfair government sanctions. The government has nothing to do to turn women away from life-saving aid.

Caring Families also asked the court to find that the Hartford order violates the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, establishment, due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution, and that it is breaking state law. The group is claiming unspecified damages and legal fees.

Howard Rifkin, the attorney for the Hartford Company, said he was confident the city’s edict would stand in court.

“The ordinance is carefully drafted and does not attempt to infringe on freedom of expression or freedom of religion,” he said. “Rather, it aims 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.

Peter Wolfgang, head of the Family Institute of Connecticut and vocal opponent of Hartford’s tenure, praised Caring Families for bringing the lawsuit.

“We told the city that they would likely be prosecuted for targeting the free speech of pro-lifers and that they would likely lose in court,” he said Thursday. “We are delighted to see that our first prediction has come true. We hope the second will do it too.

Hartford City Council approved the Hot Button Ordinance in December 2017 with a view to implementing it as of July 2018.

The city suspended plans in June 2018 after the United States Supreme Court overturned a California law that required crisis pregnancy centers to tell clients they can access free, low-cost abortions. Judge Clarence Thomas wrote in the court’s majority opinion that California illegally coerced faith centers into giving women information that was contrary to their beliefs.

But the leaders of Hartford announced in september that after consulting with lawyers, they would go ahead with local enforcement. Mayor Luke Bronin said the city’s mandate was “a very simple and narrowly tailored disclosure,” unlike California law which required more affirmative statements from religious institutions.

The city’s health and social services department began to apply the following month. Fines of $ 100 per day can now be imposed on centers that violate the order.

In Hartford, authorities have targeted a facility on Jefferson Street called the Hartford Women’s Center, located a short walk from an abortion clinic. They said the women’s center was opened there to intercept female patients who were heading to the clinic.

Efforts to pass a statewide regulation during last year’s legislative session were unsuccessful. The defenders continued this year, despite strong opposition from supporters of faith-based centers.

Under the measure approved by the Public Health Committee, the Connecticut attorney general could seek a court injunction to end the deceptive practices. Faith centers that break the law may be required to broadcast “corrective” advertising, post a notice that corrects false information, or pay a fine.

The bill has yet to be approved by the House and Senate.

Harle said she hoped the lawsuit would give lawmakers pause.

“Maybe that will send a message,” she said. “I hope they read the complaint and think again about whether it is really a good idea to go ahead with an unconstitutional law.”

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