Proposed Ordinance Targeting Crisis Pregnancy Centers In Easthampton Fails

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A proposed ordinance targeting pro-life crisis pregnancy centers in Easthampton died Wednesday night, as city councilors failed to override the mayor’s veto of the measure.

The Easthampton City Council voted 5-3 to override the veto – one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed.

“Shame on you, Councilor Gomez,” said city councilor Brad Riley, who voted for the override, referring to Homar Gomez, the city council president, who changed his vote over concern the city would incur a large expense defending a lawsuit against it.

“For the first time and the last time I’m going to ask for respect. I never challenged anyone. I never said to anyone, ‘How you guys vote?’ Respect my vote,” Gomez said.

No councilors spoke in favor of crisis pregnancy centers or against the substance of the ordinance. Instead, the discussion centered on whether the city might have to fend off a costly lawsuit.

That’s why the mayor, Nicole LaChappelle, who supports abortion, vetoed the proposed ordinance July 6, the day after the city council passed it.

“For me reproductive rights are human and civil rights. They’re without question,” LaChappelle said, during a city council meeting July 5.

But she noted that where courts will end up on laws and ordinances targeting crisis pregnancy centers is unclear.

“Additional legal exposure is very concerning,” LaChappelle said July 5. “… Easthampton is best served by monitoring legal positions rather than pursuing unsettled law.”

State and local governments are potentially on the hook for lawyer’s fees of the plaintiffs if they lose a federal civil rights lawsuit.

In November 2022, the city of Boston agreed to pay $2.125 million in attorney’s fees to Liberty Counsel, a law group that focuses on religious freedom cases, several months after the city lost a U.S. Supreme Court case in May 2022 over the city’s refusal to fly the Christian flag outside of Boston City Hall.


Ordinance Passed First Time In Early July

Even with the mayor’s skepticism, Easthampton city councilors on July 5 voted 6-1 to approve the ordinance July 5, with one abstention.

During the Wednesday, July 5 meeting, city councilors voting yes were Homar Gomez (city council president), Brad Riley, Koni Denham, Salem Derby, Thomas Peake, and Owen Zaret. Voting no was David Meunier. James Kwiecinski abstained.

On Wednesday, August 2, Riley, Denham, Derby, Peake, and Zaret again voted yes, this time to override the mayor’s veto. Meunier again voted no. But Gomez and Kwiecinski also voted no, which killed the measure.


What Would It Have Done?

The Easthampton measure began as an effort in May 2022 to ban what its sponsor (city councilor Owen Zaret) described as “deceptive advertising” by crisis pregnancy centers. Similar measures have been enacted in Somerville and Cambridge, which have no crisis pregnancy centers, but they have stalled or been abandoned in places that do have crisis pregnancy centers, including Framingham and Worcester.

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office has quietly advised local officials not to pass such measures for fear that they’ll lead to costly lawsuits that the local municipalities will lose, two Worcester city officials told the city council there during a public meeting July 18. The Attorney General’s office has not responded to recent requests for comment from New Boston Post.

In October 2022, Zaret withdrew his original proposal in Easthampton.

Zaret’s most recent proposed ordinance, which has gone through several months of revisions, sought to have the city endorse abortion and gender transitioning (saying access to them “benefits the health, safety and welfare of the citizens and is in the interest of the City”); to require the city to “make available” information from the state about crisis pregnancy centers and “entities performing reproductive services in the Commonwealth”; to have the city “notify the public of available resources concerning deceptive advertising regarding reproductive health care”; and to require the city’s health department to “advise residents of the City of their right to file a consumer complaint” against a crisis pregnancy center “or other reproductive health care.”

The Easthampton measure also would have prohibited city employees from providing information about people concerning abortion and gender transitioning to authorities in states where those actions are illegal.

“Why are we doing this?” Zaret said during the July 5 city council meeting. “The landscape of reproductive and gender-affirming health care has changed substantially in just the last year. What is legal and accessible and how to access it may change, and we have an obligation from a public health perspective to make sure the public is aware of this information from the state. The lack of access to this information affects typically the most marginalized or minoritized populations. They are the most vulnerable to either the lack of information or frankly the disinformation, and they suffer the most repercussions financially, socially and medically. The precipitous increase in states that have criminalized a variety of reproductive health care services and gender-affirming services has caused an influx of patients to our state. We are obligated to offer information and protections to people seeking legal services in our state.”

Easthampton is a city of about 16,000 in western Massachusetts, about 12 miles north and a little west of Springfield. Voters there went for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020, 73 percent to 24 percent.


Crisis Pregnancy Centers In The Dock?

In July 2022, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office issued what it called a “warning” against crisis pregnancy centers.

Crisis pregnancy centers, which are also known as pregnancy resource centers, provide free products and services to women with problem pregnancies in hopes of helping them before and after giving birth and persuading them not to have an abortion.

Opponents of crisis pregnancy centers say some of them use deceptive means to lure pregnant women into their facilities in order to give them a pro-life pitch, and that some give them wrong information to delay or prevent them from getting an abortion. Supporters of crisis pregnancy centers say that’s nonsense — that such centers tell women the truth and expand their universe of options by offering practical assistance in a time of need.

Supporters of the proposed ordinance said the measure would have had no effect on the one crisis pregnancy center in Easthampton, called Bethlehem House, which was vandalized in August 2022.

“This ordinance does not affect you. It doesn’t target you. It will not shut you down or in any way impede your work or operations. And the work you do offering resources to families is laudable and the vandalism that occurred on your property is reprehensible,” Zaret said during the July 5 meeting.

But opponents said the measure might hurt Bethlehem House because, they said, the language is tilted against pro-life centers.

“The city can say whatever it wants in support of abortion, but it needs to leave pregnancy resource centers out of it. PRCs, as mentioned, like Bethlehem House, do heroic work, and that’s all been talked about tonight. They do not deserve to be disparaged by consumer advisories or threatened with complaints to the Attorney General’s office. The council should do the right thing and reject this ordinance,” Michael King of the Massachusetts Family Institute said during the city council meeting July 5.

Bob Sass, an Easthampton resident, linked the proposed measure to division and vandalism.

“The question I ask, is what are we really contributing with this ordinance?” Sass said. “… It wasn’t until the ordinance appeared that we had issues with acts of terror.”


City Councilors Showed ‘Incredible Discipline,’ Supporter Says

Riley, a city councilor who supported the proposed ordinance, described himself during the July 5 meeting as a Buddhist who raised two Catholic daughters, and said he respects all religions. But he characterized opposition to abortion and gender transitioning as coming from a religious point of view that he said should not determine public policy.

“I’ll be the first to say that I love how enthusiastic the public is regarding our democratic processes. However, a constant obstruction of our meetings and unhelpful dialogues were tiring at best, and sometimes completely exhausting. I know it was for me, and I know it was for you all, as well. I bring this up because it took incredible discipline to listen to naysayers who would rather a religion rule Payson Avenue,” Riley said, referring to one of the main streets in Easthampton, where city hall is.

Targeting crisis pregnancy centers for state action is appropriate in some circumstances, Riley said.

“In the commonwealth of Massachusetts, reproductive health is a legally protected right. Gender-affirming health care is a legally protected right. Religious attempts to deceptively circumvent those laws, in my opinion, should be reported to the state,” Riley said.


Veto Override Vote

During the city council meeting Wednesday, August 2, only supporters of the measure spoke during public comment. Among them was Sheila Ramirez, a representative of Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts, who spoke briefly.

Before the vote, Zaret, the sponsor of the measure, framed it in titanic terms. He said:


Every day in this position, we make choices that are impactful, but it’s not often that we make choices that are globally and historically impactful. And I don’t have a crystal ball, but I have a very strong feeling that upholding this veto — i.e., not overriding it — will have a negative historical impact locally, statewide, and even potentially federally for reproductive freedoms. It’s already being used as a touchstone by right-wing and anti-choice organizations that try to continue to quench the fires of reproductive justice and freedom. Now, I’m just one vote, and I can only follow the path of my moral compass. And behind me, to the south, is anti-choice and conservative theocratic fundamentalism. To the east is bureaucracy, to the west is indecisiveness and ineffectiveness, and to the north, my north, is choice and freedom, and that’s the only way that I can follow in which my moral compass points.


He noted that a legal organization had offered to represent the city of Easthampton free of charge if it were sued over the ordinance.

Zaret said:


It’s a dim dystopia that we would live in where the notion of sharing public information and the opinions of our Attorney General is considered controversial. Think about that today. Upholding this veto is fueling the fires of disinformation and the opacity of government. As pointed out, we have pro bono representation to defend ourselves against these threats and frivolous actions. I’ve told you where I stand. I’m voting yes to override this veto. You need to make your own decisions and decide where you’ll be written in the book of history. I’m going to sleep well tonight. I’m not going to regret my vote. And I urge you to do the same and vote with your conscience.


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