Supreme Court to hear appeal of abortion-protest buffer zone - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Supreme Court to hear appeal of abortion-protest buffer zone

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

Agnes Clift calls herself a sidewalk counselor. She opposes abortion and stands outside Burlington's Planned Parenthood up to 16 hours per week, praying for the women inside.

"We are saying there are alternatives to abortion and there is help for you and that God loves you," Clift said.

Last year, the city councilors made it harder for Clift to reach her target audience by establishing a 35-foot no-protest zone around reproductive health centers citywide. The goal was to spare patients from harassment.

"We have been pushed to use more signs because we are pushed across the street," Clift said. "It's the only way to get our message across."

The buffer zone ordinance also prompted protestors to sue the city, claiming the distance violated their rights. But in February, a federal judge upheld the constitutionality of the ordinance.

Planned Parenthood is also standing behind the buffer zones. Officials said in a statement: "People seeking health care services should be able to do so without fear of violence, harassment or intimidation. Courts across the country have upheld the constitutionality of buffer zone laws, including the U.S. District Court in Burlington."

But now Queen City protestors may get help from Massachusetts activists who want a similar law overturned in their state. The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday it will reconsider the constitutionality of the Bay State buffer zones. The justices agreed to hear an appeal after a lower court upheld the law.

"So, it's not a ruling on the merits of the case at all. It is only a decision by the Supreme Court to actually hear the case," said Mitch Pearl of Langrock, Sperry & Wool.

Legal experts say buffer zone cases must balance several competing interests. The high court will have to weigh the First Amendment rights of protestors with a municipality's right to maintain order and a patient's right to privacy. The Supreme Court's decision could impact other pending cases, like the one in Burlington.

"Of course every time the Supreme Court hears the case it gives them the opportunity to clarify the law. And it will affect existing regulations in different municipalities but we don't know how because we don't know how the court will rule," Pearl said.

"The ordinance in Burlington is based on the Mass case, so if SUPCO rules adversely to the Mass law, it will make our case much easier," Clift said.

The Supreme Court is not expected to hear arguments in the Massachusetts case until next year. In the meantime, protestors here in Burlington plan to continue their work, even if the ordinance pushes them in front of other businesses who have no affiliations with the clinics and don't want them there.

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