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Austin CPCs challenge city’s ‘false advertising’ ordinance in federal court

A handful of Austin-based crisis pregnancy center operators and Catholic groups have launched a federal lawsuit against the City of Austin over a mandate that they post signs alerting visitors that they don’t provide abortion references or birth control, calling the measure an infringement on their free speech rights and religious freedom, the Austin Chronicle reported.

The April 2010 ordinance requires centers to post signs that disclose they do not provide or refer for abortions or comprehensive birth control, and was seen by council members as a way to curb “false advertising” by the typically faith-based, unregulated centers. Crisis pregnancy resource centers, or CPCs, have been criticized by reproductive rights advocates such as NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, which track the state program that allocates funds to the centers. The group argues CPCs are misleading and that their mission includes preventing abortions.

The Liberty Institute, a Plano-based conservative legal group, is representing the Austin Pregnancy Resource Center, the South Austin Pregnancy Resource Center, The Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin and Catholic Charities of Central Texas, contending the signs amount to “unlawful viewpoint discrimination” and force the centers to provide clients with “false and/or misleading message about services they do not provide.”

According to the suit, the requirement places a substantial “burden” on religious ministries and “unconstitutionally seeks to suppress unpopular ideas and information relating to pregnancy, and to manipulate the public debate by attempting to dissuade women from hearing pregnancy information from a religious perspective.”

The Chronicle points out that although the groups argue the ordinance fails to place a similar burden on other providers, state law does, in fact, require abortion providers to post notices, licensing numbers and information on how to reach the state with client complaints.

The unanimous vote was the second resolution of its type passed in the country. Baltimore issued a similar measure in 2009 but was deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge in Maryland.

Site visits have found that Austin LifeCare, a state-funded CPC and a plaintiff in the suit, conflates religious and educational materials and instructs volunteers with overt religious references, as the Texas Independent has reported. The state contractor that evaluates CPCs in Texas found at least one violation during more than half of their pre-announced site visits to subcontractors.

Pam Cobern, executive director of Austin LifeCare, told the Austin American-Statesman the ordinance “is designed to criminally punish the leadership and volunteer board members of pregnancy centers for no other reason than their moral opposition to abortion.”

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