Liberty Counsel filed a reply brief to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals asking for a permanent injunction to prevent the City of Harrisburg from enforcing its unconstitutional ordinance that has prohibited pro-life volunteers from participating in one-on-one counseling near an abortion facility.
Liberty Counsel represents Colleen Reilly and Becky Biter, who have regularly engaged in peaceful sidewalk counseling to encourage women to protect the life of their unborn children. Reilly and Biter have been harassed and intimidated by clinic staff and the local police since the ordinance passed. This ordinance silences pro-life counselors on more than 70 feet of public sidewalk and infringes their freedom of speech, even though the city denies it. In addition, Planned Parenthood employees are permitted to go within that area to escort women into the abortion center.
The City of Harrisburg has blatantly ignored its constitutional obligations to protect speech by imposing an ideological ban on pro-life speech in a traditional public forum where the First Amendment provides the most robust protection.
Liberty Counsel previously filed a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent Harrisburg from enforcing the ordinance as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. Despite the United States Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in McCullen v. Coakley, which struck down similar buffer zones, the district court denied injunctive relief in August 2016. Then Liberty Counsel appealed the district court’s decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the district court had erroneously determined that the ordinance was unlikely to violate the First Amendment. On May 25, 2017, the Third Circuit issued its opinion vacating the district court’s decision. In its decision, the Third Circuit held that the district court had ignored the First Amendment’s requirement that Harrisburg demonstrate that the ordinance did not burden speech in violation of the Constitution. It sent the case back to the district court, ordering the court to hold an evidentiary hearing on whether Harrisburg could satisfy its demanding burden.
The district court again denied a preliminary injunction, this time concluding that the ordinance did not prohibit sidewalk counseling, and the Third Circuit agreed. However, the courts disregarded the fact that Harrisburg police had actually enforced the ordinance against Reilly, forcing her to stop counseling in the buffer zone. The current appeal seeks to hold the city accountable for that unconstitutional enforcement.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “The City of Harrisburg ignored the First Amendment to appease Planned Parenthood and its preference for completely silencing all pro-life speech. Public sidewalks and parks have always been protected as places where people can gather to participate in the marketplace of ideas. The city must be held accountable for its unconstitutional enforcement that infringes on pro-life speech.”