(CNSNews.com) – A North Carolina pregnancy center filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Raleigh on Wednesday that challenges its decision to prohibit the center from operating next door to an abortion clinic.
The pro-life group obtained zoning approval in May from Raleigh’s Planning Commission and Citizen Advisory Council to use it for a not-for-profit pregnancy help center to share “God’s love and free resources with women facing the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy.”
“The Planning Commission found that the requested rezoning was consistent with Raleigh’s Comprehensive Plan and Raleigh’s Future Land Use Map and that it was not inconsistent with any of Raleigh’s policies,” the lawsuit noted.
“The Planning Commission also found that Hand of Hope’s proposal was reasonable and in the public interest…[and] compatible with the surrounding area.”
However, the Raleigh City Council unanimously voted to deny Hand of Hope’s zoning approval request on July 5th, with council member Kay Crowder telling the News & Observer that the property should be rezoned later as part of a larger commercial project.
“This co-ordinated approach would produce a more efficient use of the land. In contrast, this lot-by-lot piecemeal non-residential development will produce small scale offices on small lots,” Crowder argued.
But A Hand of Hope Executive Director Tonya Baker Nelson said that she was shocked by the city’s decision to withdraw its prior zoning approval.
“We own that property, and we think we have a constitutional right to operate our ministry out of property we own,” she said.
The lawsuit claims that the group's zoning approval was really revoked because “the City Council did not want Hand of Hope, which communicated the Gospel message and a pro-life message, located next door to an established abortion clinic.”
The lawsuit contends that by revoking the zoning approval, the city is violating Hand of Hope’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech and equal treatment under the law.
“From all our research, it looked like our request fit right into the UDO (Raleigh’s development guidelines) and we were following all the rules laid out for us, step-by-step,” Nelson said.
“Pregnant women in Raleigh should be allowed to choose Hand of Hopes’ free help and support and should not be limited to an abortion clinic. Those who go to Preferred Women’s Health will not be fully informed about their choices,” she said in a statement on Thursday.
Raleigh’s City Council and the city attorney “defended their decision by citing their power and ‘wide discretion’ to decide what is the best use for Hand of Hope’s property,” according to the pro-life group.
“The lawsuit however claims that the City’s power and discretion is limited by the United States Constitution and the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act. This federal law was passed in 2000 after Congress uncovered widespread discrimination against religious organizations in land use regulations across the country.”
“The City Council is not above the law and tried to hide their political power play. Thankfully, the federal law was put in place to prevent politicians from masking their political preferences behind broad discretionary regulations,” said attorney Noel Sterett of Mauck & Baker, LLC in Chicago, which is representing A Hand of Hope in the litigation.
“I hope we can all agree that our freedoms, property rights, and a woman’s right to be fully informed should not be subject to the political whims and discretion of a few city council members,” added Sterett.