The sidewalk outside the central Fresno Planned Parenthood Mar Monte is often crowded with protesters bearing pro-life signs or peaceful "sidewalk counselors" who distribute anti-abortion leaflets. They can't step onto clinic property and usually keep to a strip of sidewalk just off the grounds, clinic officials say.
Just outside the entrance, a sign with red lettering carries a stiff warning: intimidate or block people from entering, and you're breaking the law.
The Golden State is one of several states that have passed laws doling out strict penalties to people who interfere with patients trying to enter a clinic where abortions are performed. California law also prohibits threats against patients and clinic personnel -- and makes it a crime to damage clinic, patient or employee property. First-time offenders can face up to $25,000 in fines and a year in jail.
It may seem harsh, but California actually carries more protections for protesters than many states around the country including Massachusetts, which saw its own patient protection law struck down Thursday by the nation's highest court.
In the wake of the United States Supreme Court decision that ends Massachusetts' abortion clinic buffer zone law, it would seem like California's protections could be in jeopardy.
But whereas the court unanimously said Massachusetts' law violates the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, the justices reaffirmed less intrusive rules like California's. Unlike Massachusetts, California does not have a statewide buffer zone law.
The justices' majority opinion praised more tailored laws like those in California, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing that Massachusetts could lawfully impose less restrictive measures while protecting the rights of patients and health professionals.
Local religious leaders said the decision strikes the right balance and praised the court for protecting free speech. Rev. Jim Franklin pointed to the unanimity of the decision on one of the most divisive issues of modern times.
"This was a 9-0 decision, which really puts a lot of weight behind it," said Franklin, senior pastor at Cornerstone Church in downtown Fresno. "No one should be accosted, no one should in any way be disrespected, but people have the right to express their opinions and their beliefs because those are the principals this country was founded on."
Joanne Bauer, family life coordinator with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, said, "It's all about religious freedom and our ability as American citizens, no matter what our faith or lack of faith, to be able to express ourselves."
Even though the court reaffirmed California's law, Planned Parenthood Mar Monte official Pedro Elias said he was "extremely disappointed" with the decision and called the issue a continuing public safety concern. He said California's law protects both free speech and privacy rights, but uncomfortable confrontations still happen from time to time at his clinic.
"We have had patients who walk in with concerns and pretty upset there's someone judging them, harassing them," said Elias, the health clinic's director of public affairs. "We'll continue to provide safety and privacy for our patients and staff. We will continue what we have been doing and work within local and state laws."
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