NY pro-life sidewalk counselor to ask Supreme Court to consider clinic buffer zone case

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A sidewalk counselor from New York will soon ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case against Westchester County, which passed a law following the fall of Roe v. Wade in June 2022 that bars pro-life advocates from offering women alternatives to abortion within 100 feet from a clinic.

Similar laws are being pushed across the nation and in different countries in an attempt to stop women considering abortion from encountering sidewalk counselors from explaining the harms of abortion and the multitude of resources available for pregnancy and post-pregnancy. 

Represented by Becket, a nonprofit public-interest legal and educational institute dedicated to protecting the free expression of all faiths, Debra Vitagliano, a 64-year-old mother of three, brought the suit against Westchester County, where she lived when she was training to be a sidewalk counselor in 2022. When she finished her training, the county had already passed the law and she was barred from counseling women considering abortion outside the clinics. 

The Westchester County “bubble zone law” holds misdemeanor penalties of up to a $5,000 fine and one year jail time.

Vitagliano’s initial First Amendment suit in U.S. district court was dismissed in January because of the 2000 Supreme Court precedent case Hill v. Colorado, which allowed states and municipalities to outlaw sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics, according to Becket.

The district court also said that Vitagliano didn’t have standing to bring the case because she hadn’t previously engaged in sidewalk counseling.

After a challenge to the ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the district court on June 21 but disagreed with its ruling that Vitagliano didn’t have standing.

“Deborah wants to sidewalk counsel. She’s invested a lot of resources learning how to do it, and the only thing stopping her right now is that the government has said that it’s illegal for her to do so,” Joe Davis, an attorney with Becket, told CNA Thursday.

Vitagliano will be asking the Supreme Court to hear her case as early as next month. The earliest the court could decide on taking the case is this coming fall, Davis said. If the court takes the case, it could be decided by next June, he said.

If the court doesn’t decide on taking the case until 2024, then it would be bumped to the court’s following term.

If the Hill v. Colorado precedent is overturned “it would free sidewalk counselors to carry out their ministry of helping women at the time when it’s most needed,” Davis said.

“Hill versus Colorado really distorted the First Amendment, and it did so in order to protect a right to abortion that’s now been overruled,” he said. “So it’s time to restore the First Amendment in this context as well.”

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