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Will the Supreme Court pop abortion clinic bubbles?: A challenge to ‘buffer zones’ against anti-abortion protesters gets a surprise hearing Jan. 15. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly allowed “buffer zones” that keep abortion protesters from approaching medical facility entrances. So the court surprised many observers when it agreed to hear a challenge to a Massachusetts “buffer zone” law on Jan. 15.

Mark Rienzi, lead counsel for the pro-life plaintiffs, argues that the state’s 2007 law creating a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics and other health-care facilities exceeds the high court’s ruling.

In its 2000 decision Hill v. Colorado, the Supreme Court upheld Colorado’s so-called “bubble law” by a 6-to-3 vote. The law established a 100-foot zone in front of medical facilities and prohibited protesters from walking within an “8-foot bubble” of people.

“The Court allowed the restriction because the law had several key safeguards, all of which have been eliminated by the Massachusetts law,” said Rienzi, a Catholic University of America law professor.

He declared the Massachusetts law “inescapably viewpoint-based” — and thus a violation of free speech — because it applies “only when and where abortion is allowed.” It also lets staff promote abortion to potential patients in the buffer zone.

“These [laws] are being passed for one purpose: to shut down the speech of one opinion, which should be enough for the Supreme Court to reject them,” said Brian Gibson, executive director of Pro-Life Action Ministries.

But in upholding the Massachusetts law a year ago, an appeals court disagreed, saying the free speech protections were similar to those in Hill.

This story appears in the January/February print issue of Christianity Today.

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