Proposed safe zone around women's clinic sparks debate - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Proposed safe zone around women's clinic sparks debate

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

Their songs and prayers compete with the sounds of downtown traffic. Rosary-in-hand, these right-to-life protestors never miss a Wednesday outside of Burlington's Planned Parenthood. That's the day abortions are performed and these women show up to voice their opposition.

"We have a growing number of women who actually have it in their hearts to speak to the women, out of loving kindness," said Agnes Clift, a protestor.

"Patients are being approached as they come into the health center, given misinformation about medical procedures, being asked what they're doing there and some have even been followed on foot as they leave the health center," said Jill Krowinski of Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood says the protestors' tactics are intimidating patients. On two occasions the police were called for harassment complaints. No charges or tickets were issued, but staff says the growing aggressiveness highlights the need for a patient safety zone. On Monday night the City Council in a 13-1 vote agreed, giving preliminary approval to an ordinance that would push protestors away from the building.

If this ordinance passes it would create a 35-foot buffer zone which means the protestors would have to stand on the other side of the street, where they say their message will hardly be heard.

"We're going to have to work on making bigger signs that can be read across the street," Clift said.

Clift says the distance keeps her message from reaching its intended audience. The City Council says the goal is to strike a balance between rights, not to quash anyone's voice.

"We're well aware and committed to assuring First Amendment rights for everybody whether we like the message or we don't like the message," said Joan Shannon, D-Burlington City Council President.

"Legally, the City Council is on very firm footing here," said Cheryl Hanna, a legal analyst.

Hanna says the courts have routinely upheld buffer zones cases. These restrictions on time, place and manner recognize the right to protest, but require it to be done at a safe distance.

"The courts have said this is a very reasonable way to balance the free speech rights of protestors on one hand and the ability of people to access health care on the other," Hanna said.

"If I could save one child if would just mean so much," Clift said.

Clift says if the ordinance becomes law she'll obey it, but she won't stop protesting.

Monday night's vote was the first of three on this issue. The ordinance committee reviews the proposal and sends it back to the City Council with any revisions. Planned Parenthood is hoping to have a final ordinance on the books by mid-summer.

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