Portland officials could vote Monday to repeal the city’s no-protest buffer zone around a clinic downtown that provides abortions, in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a similar law in Massachusetts violated the free-speech rights of anti-abortion demonstrators.
Portland’s attorneys are recommending that the City Council repeal the ordinance requiring protesters to stand at least 39 feet from the entrance to the Planned Parenthood of New England clinic on Congress Street. Councilors will discuss the ordinance in a closed-door session with the city’s attorney Monday evening before taking up the issue during its regular public meeting at 7 p.m.
The buffer zone is one of three weighty legal issues that councilors are expected to discuss Monday.
Another is whether to join the Maine Municipal Association’s lawsuit against the state Department of Health and Human Services over the LePage administration’s plan to stop state funding for General Assistance to undocumented immigrants. The policy disproportionately affects Portland, which has a large immigrant population.
Councilors also will discuss a recent federal court ruling that could affect the city’s restrictions on panhandlers.
The abortion clinic buffer zone and General Assistance policies are likely to generate the most discussion.
City attorneys are recommending that the council treat the buffer zone repeal as an “emergency” measure, so it can discuss and vote on the proposal in a single day. The council is expected to hear public comments on the proposal, and members could delay a decision or take other action.
In a unanimous decision June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that a Massachusetts law banning protesters from entering a 35-foot zone around abortion clinic entrances is unconstitutional.
While the justices agreed with opponents of the law that such buffer zones violate demonstrators’ free-speech rights, they said there are ways for communities to protect patients from potential harassment by abortion opponents without violating the Constitution.
Portland has been sued over its 39-foot buffer zone. Erin Kuenzig, the attorney with the Thomas More Law Center who is representing two abortion opponents in the lawsuit, said the plaintiffs will watch closely to see how councilors proceed. Kuenzig said the plaintiffs also will press forward with their case in U.S. District Court.
Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, said her organization understands that the Supreme Court ruling doesn’t provide much flexibility for Portland to keep its buffer zone ordinance, but it hopes that city officials will look to other cities and states for strategies to address the concerns of Planned Parenthood employees and patients.
Planned Parenthood provides family planning, health screenings and other health services at the clinic on Congress Street, in addition to abortion services.
“A buffer zone is one way of dealing with this issue, but a lot of other cities have chosen to address it differently,” Clegg said. “We are now focused on next steps and doing whatever we can to make sure our patients feel safe.”
After meeting privately, Mayor Michael Brennan and city councilors are expected to publicly discuss how the city will respond to the LePage administration’s position that federal law prohibits the use of state funds for General Assistance to undocumented immigrants.
Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who has made welfare reform a focus of his first term in office and his re-election campaign, recently said the state will withhold all General Assistance funding to communities that ignore the DHHS policy.
Portland provides General Assistance to hundreds of asylum seekers, who are in the country legally as they await federal decisions on their applications. Asylum seekers are ineligible for federal aid, such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and cannot seek federal work permits for at least 150 days after they apply for asylum.
Portland officials have vowed to continue providing the assistance, unless the council decides otherwise. The Maine Municipal Association announced this week that it will sue in Superior Court to block the DHHS from moving forward with its policy change, and Portland’s council could decide to join that case.
Councilors also will discuss how to respond to a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling last week that allowed the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, to continue enforcing restrictions on panhandling. Portland has a similar policy that is the subject of a separate court challenge.
Portland’s ordinance bans panhandling in street medians, but the city has decided not to enforce it while the court considers the freedom-of-speech challenge.