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Court blocks Louisville ordinance that allowed buffer zones outside clinics that provide abortions

Two parallel yellow lines mark the new buffer zone outside of the EMW Women's Surgical Center in Louisville after city workers repainted on Wednesday.
Roberto Roldan
A federal appeals court has temporarily blocked the Louisville ordinance that allowed for a buffer zone outside EMW Women's Surgical Center.

A federal appeals court has blocked enforcement of a Louisville ordinance that created buffer zones around health care facilities, including those that provide abortions.

The ordinance, passed by the Louisville Metro Council in May 2021, makes it unlawful to obstruct or hinder a person from entering or exiting a facility. The 10-foot buffer zones stretch from the entrances and exits to the sidewalk.

The appeals order on Wednesday granting the temporary block says the ordinance is not narrowly tailored, and that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed in their constitutional challenge. It reverses a 2021 decision by United States District Court Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings.

Anti-abortion rights groups Sisters for Life Inc. and Kentucky Right to Life Inc. sued the city in federal court, arguing the ordinance violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, including freedom of speech, religion and assembly.

Sisters for Life said in the lawsuit they had for years been practicing “sidewalk ministry” outside EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, one of the state’s two abortion providers.

The group said they would approach people entering the clinic and try to provide information about alternatives to abortion. That would include giving them literature, walking with them to the clinic and trying to convince them to change their mind.

They argued that having to be so far back, due to the buffer zones, prevents them from that ministry.

Some city officials have said the people who would go in for abortions deserve to feel safe.

“That’s a very unsafe sidewalk, but you can change that tonight,” said Metro Council member Jecorey Arthur ahead of the vote in 2021. “I’m asking my colleagues to, please, use common sense and vote yes so that your constituents can have access — safe access — to health care.”

In a statement on social media, Republican Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron praised the ruling.

“This decision is a victory for the free speech rights of Kentuckians, '' the statement reads in part. “We are grateful to the Sixth Circuit for recognizing the compassionate work of sidewalk counselors and for halting Louisville Metro’s buffer zone.”

Abortion access has been cut off in most cases in the commonwealth since August, when two near-total bans were allowed to be enforced. The Kentucky Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of the laws.

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.

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