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Zone Defense

Supreme Court gives abortion opponents something to complain about

Jesus was crucified. Horses tore Saint Hippolytus limb from limb. Saint Lawrence was cooked up on a griddle. By comparison, American Christians have it pretty easy. Though it's hard to tell from listening to them.

In a federal lawsuit filed last week, five Pittsburgh-area anti-abortion activists have alleged that the city's "buffer zones" — which prohibit anti-abortion protests within 15 feet of an abortion-clinic entrance — are unconstitutional. Unless a federal court suspends the law immediately, the suit says, protesters' rights "will be squelched, causing irreparable harm to their freedom of speech." The lawsuit, which has backing from the conservative Christian Alliance Defending Freedom, begs the courts to "preserve the status quo of robust freedom of speech in Pittsburgh."

Actually, the buffer zone is the "status quo": It's been on the books since 2005. What might have changed is the U.S. Supreme Court's attitude toward it. In June, the court's decision in McCullen vs. Coakley overturned a Massachusetts law that established buffer zones across the state. That ruling, the new complaint argues, "eliminates any plausible legal justification" for Pittsburgh's law.

The lawsuit comes as little surprise: Within hours after the McCullen ruling, local abortion-rights advocates were fretting about what it could mean for Pittsburgh. The answer is not clear. "There are a number of ways in which the Massachusetts law was broader" than Pittsburgh's, Sue Frietsche, of the Women's Law Project, told me at the time. For one thing, Pittsburgh's buffer zone is much smaller: 15 feet compared to Massachusetts' 35 feet.

Not good enough, argue the plaintiffs, who the complaint says "desire to engage in peaceful sidewalk counseling ... but fear prosecution."  The zones "make Plaintiff's communication of their message ... less effective." Sure, it's the zones' fault.

Or maybe not. The complaint asserts that at least one plaintiff "often escort[s] women to nearby Catholic Charities," to learn about abortion alternatives — apparently despite the zone's interference.  And while at least one of the plaintiffs claims to have been "witnessing and praying outside of Planned Parenthood since 2009," in all that time the lawsuit alleges exactly two instances in which that ministry was interrupted. In one, a clinic guard told an anti-abortion protester to stop speaking with a client inside the zone. In the other, clinic escorts (who were themselves outside the buffer zone) exercised their First Amendment rights by interrupting a protester and leading a young woman, willingly, inside.

Even for a First Amendment supporter, it's hard to read this complaint and not be reminded of the old Monty Python routine in which a medieval peasant goads King Arthur into giving him a shove — and then protests, "Come see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I'm being repressed!" And according to the complaint, one plaintiff dates her activism no earlier than July 2014 ... just days after the McCullen ruling made the lawsuit possible.

Claiming irreparable harm to your civil rights is, obviously, a necessary part of any federal lawsuit. It's also consistent with the worldview of Christian conservatives. As public opinion shifts on social issues like gay marriage, Christians fret about religious persecution. It's not that anyone is forcing them to abandon their morality — no one's forcing them to marry into same-sex households, after all. What they are losing, though, is the ability to dictate their morality to everyone else. That's why Hobby Lobby became a conservative cause célèbre in the fight against Obamacare: Its Christian owners successfully challenged a provision requiring employee health-insurance policies to cover contraception.

Yet, even as anti-abortion activists wail about being denied access to the clinic door, they've been intruding in the offices behind it.

In 2011, Harrisburg Republicans passed a law requiring Pennsylvania abortion-providers to be reclassified as "ambulatory surgical facilities." That redesignation — which was opposed by medical organizations but backed by anti-abortion groups — required women's health clinics to undergo costly renovations, including the installation of larger elevators. Planned Parenthood has estimated the cost of renovating its Downtown clinic at more than $300,000.

Now, after being compelled to spend thousands of dollars on needless renovations, they may have to allow anti-abortion protesters on their doorstep. If that happens, let's just hope the protesters stop whining about their own martyrdom.

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