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April 24, 2019

Legislators say lawsuit won’t stall effort to regulate faith-based pregnancy centers

Legislative leaders said Tuesday that they will move forward with an effort to regulate faith-based pregnancy centers statewide, despite a legal challenge filed last week against the capital city over a similar, local law.

“It’s hard for municipalities to do this stuff without some state support,” House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, said. “So we’d like to move this to the state level, too. Instead of having the city’s lawyers defend it, we might be able to have the state Attorney General’s office defend it.” 

A faith-based pregnancy center in Willimantic has asked a federal judge for an injunction against a controversial Hartford ordinance that requires the religious facility and others like it to disclose whether their staff carry medical licenses. Critics of the faith-based institutions say their employees sometimes pose as medical workers to lure women and hand out misleading information about abortions.

Though its main operations are in Willimantic, the nonprofit center, called Caring Families Pregnancy Services, operates a mobile care unit that crisscrosses Connecticut, with stops in Hartford.

The lawsuit comes as legislators are considering imposing similar rules on a statewide basis. In March, the Public Health Committee advanced a proposal that would halt misleading advertising practices at any of the state’s 25 or so faith-based pregnancy centers. 

Under the bill, Connecticut’s Attorney General could seek a court injunction to stop the deceptive practices. Religious centers found in violation of the law may be required to distribute “corrective” advertising, post a notice that corrects the false information, or pay a fine. 

“I spoke with my senior staff yesterday, and I am comfortable moving forward with the bill that is on our calendar,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said Tuesday, five days after the legal challenge was filed.

In the lawsuit, Caring Families requested an injunction to stop the ordinance and claimed its rights had been violated. It also asked the court to declare that Hartford’s mandate violates the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise of Religion, Freedom of Speech, Establishment, Due Process and Equal Protection clauses, and that it infringes on state law. The group is seeking unspecified damages and attorneys’ fees.

Denise Harle, a lawyer for Caring Families, said the filing should give lawmakers pause.

“I’m hoping they will read the complaint and think again about whether it’s really a good idea to move forward with a law that’s unconstitutional,” Harle said. 

But Ritter said the action has fueled concerns about Hartford’s ability to defend itself.

“The reason why I think a statute is important is, these local municipalities – like the city that I represent – are now being forced to defend a constitutional claim. They don’t have the resources to do that,” he said. “If you can do it by state law and let the Attorney General’s office defend that lawsuit against them, I think that’s the right way to do it.”

“And I do think it’s constitutional,” he said of the pregnancy center regulations. 

Hartford’s corporation counsel has vowed that the city will “vigorously defend” its ordinance in court.

The city began enforcing its edict in October. Hartford’s law requires the facilities to notify people if they do not have a licensed medical provider on staff or on site. The centers must post a sign in the window and reception area, and display a similar message on their websites. 

Fines of $100 a day may be levied against establishments that do not comply.

Harle said the services offered by Caring Families do not require supervision by a licensed medical provider. The signs that the nonprofit is forced to post “make it sound like the center isn’t qualified to do what it’s doing,” she said.

Caring Families offers ultrasounds, pregnancy testing, counseling, adoption referrals, parenting classes and Bible studies, among other resources, at no cost.

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