A Massachusetts federal district judge rejected last week a challenge to a state law requiring a 35-foot buffer zone around driveways and entrances of reproductive health care facilities.
In a Boston Globe article last February, Angus McQuilken, vice president of public affairs for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts is quoted saying: “For too long, patients and staff had to endure in-your-face screaming and harassment just to get to doctor’s appointments. This 35-foot zone is more than reasonable.”
In a 75-page opinion by U.S. District Judge Joseph L. Tauro in McCullen v. Coakley (D MA, Aug. 22, 2008), the court rejected First Amendment, Equal Protection and Due Process challenges.
In denying the Free Speech claim, Judge Tauro wrote: “The Act does not regulate speech, expression, prayer, singing, worship or display of religious articles. It merely regulates where such expression may take place, i.e., outside of a clearly marked buffer zone during the normal business hours of an RHCF. The Act also applies to all non-exempt persons equally. As a result, this court is ‘bound to conclude that the regulation does not discriminate against a particular religion or religious practice.’ ”
In a different context, but same legal principle, the Supreme Court has said: “the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a ‘valid and neutral law of general applicability.’ ” Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).
Thus, not withstanding my strong support for free speech rights, I would expect that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit would uphold the District Court’s decision should the plaintiffs appeal.