St. Louis aldermanic committee passes buffer-zone bill

A proposed City of St. Louis ordinance that would create a buffer zone around "health care facilities" was recently passed by an aldermanic committee. That ordinance would include Planned Parenthood, according to testimony in the committee meeting.

The Public Safety Committee on Feb. 14 passed Board Bill 34 by a vote of 5-2. It now is expected to go to the full board for consideration. (Watch for updates.)

The bill would create an eight-foot buffer zone around a health care facility's driveway entrance, or within a public right-of-way or sidewalk, and says that no one may "knowingly enter, remain on, or create an obstruction" in those areas.

The proposed ordinance would not apply to people who are entering or leaving the health care facility, law enforcement or other first responders and people using the sidewalk or right of way to pass through. Health care facilities will clearly mark the zone.

Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia (D-6th Ward), who sponsored the bill, said there has been an increase in calls to police at Planned Parenthood in the past several years, many of which were for "impeding the flow of traffic and peace disturbances."

"This bill is about addressing public safety and protecting patients' rights to access health care," she said. "Demonstrations in front of Planned Parenthood can impede access to the clinic and are many times confrontational. It is now common practice to provide escorts for those entering and leaving the clinic to ensure access and to provide protection from aggressive counselors, who sometimes use strong and abusive language. Demonstrators impersonate Planned Parenthood employees wearing vests and utilizing 'check in here' signs. It is not unheard of for street counselors to reach into people's cars in the driveway."

Similar ordinances exist in Chicago and Pittsburgh. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Colorado law with a 100-foot buffer zone, and within it, an eight-foot floating buffer zone, meaning it applies to the zone around an individual. The Supreme Court in 2014 rejected a Massachusetts law that had a 35-foot fixed buffer zone.

Opponents of the proposed ordinance in St. Louis say that it infringes upon their First Amendment right to free speech and raises specific questions about what activity is or is not allowed.

"It's 100 percent a clear violation of First Amendment rights," said Brian Westbrook, executive director of Coalition for Life St. Louis. "The way I see it, it also infringes upon anyone's right to walk across any driveway that provides any medical treatment whatsoever. If I'm a prayer volunteer and I walk across, not necessarily going to a destination, but walking across to the other side, and then turning around and walking back across — we have plenty of volunteers who will pray the Rosary and will walk up and down the sidewalk."

Archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate's executive director Karen Nolkemper noted that the proposed ordinance would not affect the monthly Helpers of God's Precious Infants Rosary procession to Planned Parenthood.

"Any laws which infringe on the constitutionally protected rights of assembly and free speech on public property are always suspect," Nolkemper said. "Nonetheless, we do not believe the potential buffer zone will deter our monthly Helpers of God's Precious Infants Mass, 40 Days for Life, or other peaceful, prayerful witness to the sanctity of human life on the sidewalk outside the Planned Parenthood facility. Our work of prayer and presence will continue, whether or not this bill becomes law." 

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