There were several reasons why third-year law student Melodie Bales signed up to help her Catholic University of America professor Mark Rienzi prepare a constitutional case in Baltimore.
One was that she wanted experience in First Amendment law. Another was that, personally, she felt that the law “unfairly targeted pro-life centers.”
U.S. District Court Judge Marvin J. Garbis agreed. On Jan. 28, he ruled that the Baltimore city ordinance “violates the Freedom of Speech Clause of Article 1 of the Constitution of the United States.”
That decision was the result of successful litigation prepared by two law firms representing the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, and the pro bono work of Rienzi and fellow professor Robert Destro. Bales and Blair Warner, another third-year law student at the Columbus School of Law at the Washington, D.C., university, also contributed work in preparing the plaintiffs’ case.
Less protected speech
At issue was an ordinance requiring that “limited service pregnancy centers” post signs stating that they do not provide abortions nor birth control services.
The Center for Pregnancy Concerns, the only such facility in the city, operates in church space provided by the archdiocese. Rienzi and Destro have been involved in pro-life litigation before, and responded to the center’s request to challenge the new law.
Rienzi saw it as a good opportunity for law students to earn supervised fieldwork credit while litigating a cutting-edge First Amendment case.
“This case was a great chance for them to take what they learned in the classroom and go out into the real world and do something with it,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “It gave them a taste of the fun, excitement and importance of being able to use the law to help real people in real situations.”
Warner drafted legal arguments to rebut the city’s argument that speech about pregnancy is “commercial speech” and therefore entitled to less protection. Bales participated in early strategy sessions on the case and drafted portions of the complaint against the mayor, city council and several city officials.
The ordinance was not the first time that pro-choice advocates attempted to control the speech of pro-life counselors in Maryland. In 2008, they tried to get a state law passed requiring that pregnancy-center counselors tell clients they were “not legally obligated to tell you the truth.”
When that failed, the pro-choicers took their agenda to an easier-to-maneuver local level.
“It was a pretty new type of law, the first of its kind, and I didn’t see anything else exactly like it,” Bales told OSV. “What was important about it was that the right to speak and the right to refrain from speaking are both protected by the First Amendment. A lot of people think of the First Amendment in terms of restricting speech, but there’s a flip side. Laws that compel people to say things are also a violation.”
Bales found a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Wooley v. Maynard, that addressed the First Amendment right to refrain from speaking. In that case, George Maynard and his wife had repeatedly received citations for blocking out the New Hampshire state motto, “Live Free or Die,” from their vehicle registration plates. They claimed that as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they found the motto offensive to their religious beliefs.
The Supreme Court decided that New Hampshire could not constitutionally require citizens to display the state motto if the citizen found the motto offensive to their beliefs. That was relevant to the Baltimore case.
“Putting up those signs would have meant that we were being told exactly what to say,” center director Carol Clews said.
Bales helped draft motions and memoranda for arguments against that alleged mandated speech.
“It seemed to me that the [Baltimore] law was not meant to only protect against misleading information,” she said. “I really did feel like it was targeting those pro-life centers that try to help women. It didn’t seem like it was being applied to people on both sides. That definitely made it feel more important to me when I was working on it. But whether I felt that way or not, I also wanted to find the strong legal arguments to help the lawyers make their case.”
“A lot of the biggest issues in our society end up getting decided as constitutional issues, whether it’s health care, abortion or a lot of other things,” Rienzi told OSV. “I think it’s really important for people to understand how our constitution works and how much it matters to society.”
During her work on the case, Bales became “more fascinated” with constitutional law and the “practical effects it plays in everyone’s lives.”
In his ruling, Judge Garbis noted that when the defendants called the plaintiffs’ work “propaganda,” such descriptions “can only support the conclusion that the defendants enacted an ordinance out of disagreement with the plaintiffs’ viewpoints on abortion and birth control.”
In the matter of calling the pregnancy services “commercial transactions” that were subject to regulation, he found that “offering free services such as pregnancy tests and sonograms in furtherance of a religious mission fails to equate with engaging in a commercial transaction. Were that the case, any house of worship offering their congregants sacramental wine, communion wafers, prayer beads or other objects with commercial value, would find their accompanying speech subject to diminished constitutional protection.”
Bales called the decision a victory for the pro-life cause.
“We were able to show the judge that the rule was unconstitutional,” she said.
Rienzi has a passion for taking on pro-life litigation. “My faith is what drives me to do this pro bono work, and being able to work on pro-life issues is what attracted me to the law in the first place,” he said.
As for students who work with him in preparing real litigation, they “come knocking on the door” when he posts cases.
“We try to get students to think about using the law to do the right things,” Rienzi said. “With my pro-life work, I try to provide them with the opportunity.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
Hands-on learning (sidebar)