While the long-awaited Hobby Lobby decision won’t come until next week, the United States Supreme Court did issue a couple interesting rulings today.

In yet another unanimous decision this session, the Court reversed the First Circuit Court decision in McCullen v. Coakley.

At issue in McCullen v. Coakley was whether the First Circuit erred in upholding Massachusetts’s “selective exclusion law” – which made it a crime for speakers other than abortion clinic workers to “enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk” within 35 feet of an entrance, exit, or driveway of “a reproductive health care facility.”.

The Court holds that the Massachusetts law violates the First Amendment. This is a law that imposes a thirty-five-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics.

According to SCOTUSblog, the decision is relatively narrow.

The Court makes clear that states can pass laws that specifically ensure access to clinics. It holds that states cannot more broadly prohibit speech on public streets and sidewalks. It also notably rejects the protesters’ broadest arguments that such restrictions require strict constitutional scrutiny and are viewpoint based.

The upshot of today’s ruling is that an abortion clinic buffer zone is presumptively unconstitutional. Instead, a state has to more narrowly target clinic obstructions. For example, the police can tell protesters to move aside to let a woman through to the clinic. But it cannot prohibit protesters from being on the sidewalks in the first instance. If in practice protesters still are obstructing the entrance, then it can consider a broader restriction.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Mark Rienzi, professor of constitutional law at Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and lead counsel in McCullen v. Coakley, hailed the decision.

“Americans have the freedom to talk to whomever they please on public sidewalks. That includes peaceful pro-lifers like Eleanor McCullen, who just wants to offer information and help to women who would like it. The Supreme Court has affirmed a critical freedom that has been an essential part of American life since the nation’s founding.”

The full SCOTUS decision on McCullen v. Coakley can be read here.


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