EMW Women's Surgical Center on Market Street

EMW Women's Surgical Center on Market Street 

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The head of an anti-abortion organization has filed a federal lawsuit against Louisville Metro government, arguing that a recent Metro Council ordinance creating a buffer zone for medical clinics is unconstitutional.

Sisters for Life and its president, Angela Minter, say the northern Kentucky-based ministry has met women on the sidewalk outside of EMW Women’s Surgical Center in downtown Louisville – the state’s only abortion clinic – since 2003, telling them they “actually have a choice,” according to the suit.

“But now, that can no longer happen,” the suit claims. “Because Defendants made this interaction and sidewalk ministry illegal.”

The suit, filed Sunday in U.S. District Court in Louisville, is asking a judge to block the ordinance and “restore the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs to conduct their life-saving ministry within a traditional public forum.”

The Kentucky Right To Life Association joined the lawsuit on Monday.

The city has agreed not to enforce the ordinance until July 16 while the case is argued. 

The ordinance blocks assembly on public streets and sidewalks, which the suit argues is a violation of the First Amendment. 

The Louisville Metro Council approved the ordinance in May requiring demonstrators or counselors to stay 10-feet from the door, to allow patients to enter and exit buildings safely.

According to the ordinance, violators will be warned on their first violation. They face being cited and fined after that.

The EMW clinic is often the site of protests from anti-abortion groups as women go to the clinic.

Councilwoman Cassie Chambers Armstrong, D-8th District, who introduced the ordinance back in February, and others have said those demonstrations have become too dangerous.

The measure passed in a 14-11 vote.

"Medically speaking, and first and foremost, our patients are psychologically damaged by the blocking, harassment, taunts, and stalking for over a block when they are trying to enter our office," Dr. Ernest Marshall, founder of the EMW Women's Surgical Center, said recently. "This is extremely stressful and they express they are afraid on a public sidewalk."

Sisters for Life says in its complaint that its representatives and Minter will initiate conversations with women outside the clinic.

That approach, the lawsuit says, is “much more effective means of dissuading women from having abortions than confrontational methods such as shouting, brandishing signs, blocking access, loud speakers, or other methods which, in Plaintiffs’ view, tend only to alienate their intended audience.”

The lawsuit claims the “sidewalk ministry is not loud, obnoxious, or confrontational.”

The debate surrounding the creation of a buffer zone at the clinic goes back as far as 2017. A similar safety buffer ordinance was considered and narrowly failed in Metro Council last year.

The suit claims the ordinance actually allows a buffer zone that extends for much of the block around the clinic.

"It was a not-so-clever gerrymander to restrict an entire city block from being accessed by opponents to abortion," according to the suit. 

The ordinance, according to the suit, "is an insidious content and viewpoint-based speech gerrymander, designed to squelch dissenting speech, and the practice of sincerely held religious beliefs, in the vicinity of EMW."

The lawsuit names Mayor Greg Fischer, Louisville Metro Police Chief Erika Shields and County Attorney Mike O'Connell as defendants. 

Josh Abner, a spokesman for the Jefferson County Attorney's Office, declined to comment because the lawsuit is pending. 

The suit is seeking a permanent injunction of the ordinance and unspecified monetary damages. 

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Digital Reporter

Jason Riley is a criminal justice reporter for WDRB.com. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after 14 years with The Courier-Journal. He graduated from Western Kentucky University. Jason can be reached at 502-585-0823 and jriley@wdrb.com.