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N.H. says it will wait to enforce abortion clinic buffer zones

The state of New Hampshire, several counties and municipalities – excluding Concord – agreed yesterday not to enforce a law allowing 25-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics until a federal judge decides whether it is legal.

In an order issued yesterday, Judge Joseph Laplante of Concord’s U.S. district court announced the agreement and said the conservative Christian legal group challenging the law has a good chance of prevailing.

The group, Alliance Defending Freedom, has sued the state, its counties and several municipalities, arguing that the law, which takes effect today, undermines the free speech rights of abortion protesters.

The U.S. Supreme Court last month unanimously struck down a similar law in Massachusetts after the same group sued to block it. The group alleges in its new complaint, filed Monday, that the high court’s decision “eliminates any plausible legal justification for the law challenged here.”

Abortion rights advocates say the zones are necessary to protect women and clinic workers from harassment and potentially violent behavior.

Laplante said yesterday that all parties but Concord and Derry had agreed not to freely enforce the law until a July 25 hearing on the complaint; they would only enforce it after first notifying the court and the plaintiff. Concord and Derry were each ordered not to comply to the terms of the agreement.

Laplante said Alliance Defending Freedom has “persuasively” argued that the law is “materially indistinguishable” from the Massachusetts law, and that neither Concord nor Derry had challenged that argument in a written objection or during two telephone conferences.

The state also did not challenge that argument in its objection, Laplante said. The attorney general’s office did, however, submit a statement yesterday to the court in which it said the new law, which allows clinics to establish buffer zones of up to 25 feet outside their facilities, is less restrictive than Massachusetts’s mandatory 35-foot zones – and therefore would likely stand up to constitutional challenge.

“The New Hampshire statute is more flexible and allows reproductive health care facilities to determine on a location-by-location basis whether to create a buffer zone,” the statement said. Gov. Maggie Hassan’s office has similarly asserted that the law is legally sound.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England said Tuesday it had no immediate plans to impose buffer zones at its New Hampshire facilities.

Dalia Vidunas, executive director of the Concord Feminist Health Center on South Main Street, said the organization would also not impose a zone – at least not today.

“We’re going to evaluate and do what’s in the best interest of our patients, because that’s our biggest concern,” she said.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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