WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court won’t hear an appeal from a Lewiston pastor who challenged a Maine law’s noise limit that was used to restrict his anti-abortion protest outside Planned Parenthood’s Portland clinic in 2015.
The decision by the nation’s highest court not to hear arguments in the case effectively affirms the constitutionality of the noise limit law and marks a turning point for a clinic in downtown Portland whose patients have been under siege for years from a small but determined group of abortion protesters.
A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood in Maine said Monday that her organization is relieved.
“It’s nice for us because it concludes what has been a several-year effort and we feel strongly that our patients should be able to receive high-quality care without the interruption of protesters screaming up at them from the street below,” spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said. “We are happy and hopefully this concludes the constant challenges here.”
The justices offered no comment in rejecting the appeal from the Rev. Andrew March, a pastor with the church Cell 53. March sued after he said Portland police officers repeatedly told him to lower his voice while he was protesting outside the clinic. March said police invoked a part of the Maine Civil Rights Act that applies to noise outside health facilities.
March said the law “targets pro-life advocates” in violation of the Constitution. A federal district judge temporarily blocked its enforcement, but the federal appeals court in Boston reversed that ruling.
March sued following a complaint against Brian Ingalls, a member of March’s congregation, by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills in November 2015.
Mills’ suit accused Ingalls of yelling so loudly about murdering babies, aborted babies’ blood and Jesus on Oct. 23, 2015, that his voice could be heard in the second-floor counseling and examination rooms of the health clinic at 443 Congress St. The shouting, according to the lawsuit, violated a provision in the Maine Civil Rights Act that protects people getting medical care from noisy disturbances.
Mills alleges in the suit that Ingalls’ actions violated the state law that bars intentionally making noise so loud that it can be heard within a building where medical treatment is provided, when the violator has been warned to cease making such noise and when he has the intent to interfere with the safe and effective delivery of health services.
“All patients have the right to receive medical services free of ‘the cacophony of political protests,’ in the words of the United States Supreme Court,” Mills said in a statement at the time. “While protesters have every right to say anything they want in a public area in the vicinity of a medical facility, they are not permitted to disrupt another citizen’s health care services.”
The attempt to get an injunction against Ingalls has been on hold in state court since March went to federal court and got a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law.
In granting the federal injunction, U.S. District Chief Judge Nancy Torresen determined that March was likely to be successful in his challenge to the constitutionality of the state law.
The state appealed that ruling to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which reversed Torresen’s ruling issued in August 2017.
“The Noise Provision was the product of a careful legislative process,” the unanimous decision by three appeals court judges said. “That process sought to forge a consensus among many competing interests in order to address what all parties to this dispute agree is a serious concern regarding the health and safety of those seeking health services.”
The judges said the law could be used equally against protesters on all sides of an issue and therefore wasn’t an unconstitutional restriction of free speech aimed only at one side. As a result, the court said, March is unlikely to prevail in his challenge of the Maine law, so the preliminary injunction against enforcement was ordered lifted.
The judge in the state court case against Ingalls, Justice Lance Walker, has yet to rule in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland on Mills’ request for an injunction that seeks to keep Ingalls from coming within 50 feet of Planned Parenthood facilities anywhere in the state.
Kate Oliveri, a lawyer with the Thomas More Law Center in Michigan, who was representing March in the case, said they were “disappointed” with the Supreme Court’s decision but said their legal fight was not over as the issue would now be back before the lower court and the issue with Ingalls remains before the Superior Court in Maine.
“We have many legal challenges left to bring and we plan on preserving this argument for the future,” Oliveri said Monday. “We do believe this ordinance, on its face, is unconstitutional.”
Mills, however, was claiming victory in the matter.
“No one should have to endure a gauntlet of taunting and harassment loud enough to be heard inside a clinic, in order to secure their right to health care, including reproductive care, in Maine or elsewhere,” she said in a statement. “I am delighted that the court has upheld this amendment to Maine’s Civil Rights Act presented by the Attorney General’s Office in 1995 and carefully crafted to gain the support of both pro-choice and pro-life interests.”
The Rev. Andrew March speaks with police Lt. William Preis in front of Planned Parenthood in Portland in 2016. (Portland Press Herald image)