October 10, 2013

Protester: Abortion clinic buffer zone would trigger lawsuit

Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine says it won’t act until the Portland City Council votes.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

An attorney who is working with anti-abortion protesters in Portland said Wednesday that a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging a Massachusetts law will set the precedent for whether buffer zones around abortion clinics are constitutional.

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A pedestrian walks past anti-abortion protesters on Congress St. in Portland near the Planned Parenthood clinic Friday, Oct. 04, 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Michael DePrimo, an attorney in Connecticut, said that if Portland enacts a proposed 39-foot buffer zone around Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and the Supreme Court overturns Massachusetts’ law, the city could end up paying his legal bills.

DePrimo, who also is representing protesters in the Massachusetts case, said he was successful in getting a buffer zone overturned in West Palm Beach, Fla., and is challenging another in Burlington, Vt.

The buffer zone in Massachusetts extends 35 feet from the entrances, exits and driveways of abortion clinics.

Leslie Sneddon of Richmond-based Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine, an organizer of the protests outside the Planned Parenthood offices in downtown Portland, said Wednesday that the group will sue the city if it enacts the buffer zone that a City Council committee endorsed Tuesday night.

The council is expected to vote on the issue Nov. 18. Sneddon said her group doesn’t plan any action in the meantime, other than its usual protests on Friday and Saturday mornings.

The council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee voted unanimously Tuesday night to recommend the 39-foot buffer zone around three entrances to the reproductive health clinic at Congress and Elm streets. That buffer would push protesters off the sidewalks surrounding the clinic.

The council chamber was packed Tuesday night with supporters of Planned Parenthood, who said patients feel harassed, intimidated and threatened by the protesters.

Members of Pro-Life Missionaries did not attend the hearing. Sneddon said Wednesday that judging by news reports, the protests were mischaracterized. “We don’t scream at women,” she said.

She also said the protesters don’t try to take pictures of patients for their Facebook page, as one woman said. Sneddon said the pictures are meant to show protesters speaking with people about their cause.

Sneddon said she doesn’t plan to attend next month’s council meeting on the issue. “I don’t feel like I need to go and listen to them rag on how bad we are, because Christ is going to be the judge,” she said.

Eric Covey, the Maine grass-roots organizer for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said he feels “very confident” that the City Council will adopt the buffer zone and that the city “stands on firm legal ground” to defend the ordinance.

DePrimo acknowledged that the laws in Massachusetts and Burlington have withstood constitutional challenges, but said the Supreme Court ruling will carry the greatest weight.

DePrimo said he is usually paid legal fees only when he wins a case, but is sometimes compensated through grants from the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based organization that advocates for religious freedom.

He said the Massachusetts case will be argued in January and he expects a decision from the Supreme Court in the spring.

For Portland to enact an ordinance before then, he said, “would be extremely foolish.”

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com

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