Pro-life activists are celebrating a Supreme Court victory, as the justices unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law requiring a buffer zone around abortion clinics.
On Thursday, in the case of McCullen v. Coakley, the court voted 9-0 to strike down the Massachusetts requirement of a 35-foot buffer zone surrounding abortion clinics. Eleanor McCullen sued the state over the law, claiming the buffer zone gave her and other peaceful pro-life activists little opportunity to have conversations with women coming to the clinics. An appeals court previously sided with the state.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the state could come up with less restrictive ways to preserve free speech for activists while allowing others unobstructed access to the clinic. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a concurring opinion criticizing Roberts for not going further and accusing the court of granting far more leniency to pro-choice groups than to pro-life activists.
While the decision could have been even stronger from a pro-life perspective, activists are still thrilled with the decision.
“This is huge. What this Massachusetts law intended was a ‘heckler’s veto.’ That’s essentially saying that if people don’t like the speech that they’re hearing from other people or others’ freedom of expression, that if they just yell out enough and enough people don’t like it then the heckler can veto free speech. The Supreme Court said, ‘No, that is not the case,'” said Liberty Counsel Action Vice President Matt Barber, who is also founder of barbwire.com.
Despite some conservatives hoping for a stronger ruling, Barber says the fact this was unanimous is a big deal.
“This was a surprisingly unanimous decision and speaks well for the protection of innocent human life as well as both freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression in the United States,” said Barber.
Many activists and court observers also expected the Supreme Court to hand down a decision on the constitutionality of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that all employers cover the cost of birth control and abortafacient drugs for their employees. The Christian owners of Hobby Lobby and the Mennonite leaders of Conestoga Wood Specialties are challenging the mandate on the grounds it would violate their freedom of religious expression due to their opposition to abortion.
The court announced its final decisions of the session will come Monday morning and that ruling is likely to be issued. While Barber has no illusions of a unanimous ruling on that case, he hopes Thursday’s buffer zone ruling is a sign of things to come on the debate over the HHS mandate.
“The fact that even the most liberal justices on the bench ruled that this buffer zone law violated free speech is an indication to me that hopefully, and you can never predict what (Justice) Anthony Kennedy is going to do, but if I’m reading here, it gives me hope. He has shown, in the past, a sensitivity toward the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression on the first amendment. I’m hoping that it will tip the scales and he will vote affirmatively that the HHS mandate violates the first amendment,” said Barber.