Federal Court Strikes Down Local Tennessee Anti-Abortion Ordinance in ACLU Case

May 1, 2020 8:30 pm

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Federal Court today issued an order preliminarily blocking a zoning ordinance passed by the city of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee that bans the provision of procedural abortion care within the city limits.

The ruling comes in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Tennessee, and the law firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP on behalf of carafem, a national network of reproductive health care clinics. Carafem currently provides medication abortion care in Mt. Juliet, and had intended to expand its practice to include surgical abortion. When the city learned of these plans, municipal officials quickly passed a zoning ordinance to directly obstruct the clinic’s ability to provide the care. Since passed, the law forced carafem to turn many patients away, pushing abortion access further out of reach for Tennesseans.

Mt. Juliet officials have been explicit that their sole reason for passing this ordinance was to stop people who have decided to have an abortion from being able to get one. In a statement to local news, City Commissioner Brian Abston explained: “I realize they have rights, but my constituents and I don’t want it here.” Another city commissioner, Ray Justice, said “The members of the commission I have talked to are 100 percent behind shutting this abomination down…This is not Mt. Juliet. This is not us.”

“Today, the court issued a necessary rebuke to Mt. Juliet officials’ blatant anti-abortion agenda,” said Andrew Beck, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “The ordinance was unconstitutional and medically unnecessary, serving only to obstruct Tennesseans’ right to access abortion care. We hope that this decision will force other politicians who might be similarly motivated to reconsider attacking abortion services.”

In its ruling, the court wrote:

“In the United States, individuals are generally free to oppose the practice of abortion, hope that women do not choose to have an abortion, work towards minimizing the frequency of abortion in the community, hope for a change in the Supreme Court’s substantive due process jurisprudence regarding abortion, and so forth. And states and municipalities can impose relatively broad post- viability restrictions on abortion rights, as well as pre-viability restrictions that do not amount to what precedential case law has called or would call an undue burden. But under that undue burden standard, states and municipalities cannot do what, based on the current record, the City likely did here: enact an ordinance (as amended) that had the purpose, and alternatively the effect, of placing a substantial obstacle in the way of women seeking abortions (including pre-viability abortions) in Mt. Juliet.”

“Today’s decision ensures that a woman in Tennessee who has made the deeply personal decision to get an abortion can access the care she needs, without political interference,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU of Tennessee legal director. “We all want to be free to make decisions that are best for our lives and our families. The court’s ruling sends a clear message that politicians cannot just trample on the Constitution to impose their own values on Tennessee residents as they please.”

“At a time when access to safe and affordable healthcare is crucial, we are pleased that the Federal Court has stepped in to help us protect the reproductive health rights of women in Tennessee when they need it most,” says Melissa Grant, COO of carafem. “Carafem remains committed to making safe, comprehensive abortion care available in all of the communities we serve. We will continue to ensure that the health needs of women in the Nashville metro area are met while complying with all state and local laws.”

Carafem is represented by Elizabeth Gray and Heather Schneider of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, Andrew Beck at the ACLU, and Thomas H. Castelli at the ACLU of Tennessee.

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