Concord won’t pursue buffer zones around reproductive health centers – yet
There is a petition to the city council asking for a 35-foot buffer zone outside the Concord Feminist Health Center on South Main Street. Bob and Eileen Ehlers were in front of the center on Friday afternoon, May 17, 2013, volunteering to escort patients inside. The current buffer zone is 8 feet from the steps of the center, a distance Eileen measured and marked with chalk. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
Concord will not have an ordinance controlling the distance protesters must stand from reproductive health clinics – at least not yet.
Because the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a similar case in Massachusetts, Concord should not pass an ordinance, City Solicitor Jim Kennedy wrote in a report to the mayor and city council. The Supreme Court accepted the Massachusetts case in June.
“That’s really going to set the tone for what you can and can’t do,” City Manager Tom Aspell said last week.
The issue was referred to the city’s legal department this spring, after a group submitted a petition asking for a buffer zone between protesters and the entrance to health centers such as the Concord Feminist Health Center on South Main Street. The petition, organized by volunteer escorts at the South Main Street clinic, asked for a requirement that protesters stand 35 feet from the entrance to the clinic.
Additional petitions urging the city council to reject a buffer zone ordinance have been submitted this summer. One petition had signatures from across the country. Others came from Catholic churches in Concord and Pittsfield, and had hundreds of signatures. One of the petitions expressed opposition to “singling out pro-life speech for special restrictions such as the creation of a no-speech zone on the public sidewalks.”
The petition asking for a buffer zone had nearly 50 signatures. The center on South Main Street did not formally sponsor the petition, though Executive Director Dalia Vidunas signed it.
Vidunas has said that she has concerns about protesters interacting with patients or blocking their access to parking meters on Main Street.
In visits to the Concord Feminist Health Center this spring, the Monitor found people praying on the sidewalk outside, but not interacting with patients coming and going from the building.
Kennedy wrote in his report that the Concord police can use existing laws to respond to complaints about protesters, “to the extent that there are any imminent safety concerns” at the Concord Feminist Health Center.
No other city or town in New Hampshire has a buffer zone ordinance for reproductive health clinics, Kennedy noted in his report. He suggested that if such an ordinance is upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, it would perhaps be a better issue for the state Legislature to consider.
“By way of example, the state has previously enacted a buffer zone statute which applies to all election polling centers throughout the state, providing voters a zone of entry into all polling places in the state,” Kennedy wrote.
The council accepted Kennedy’s report Monday night as part of its consent agenda, meaning councilors did not discuss it or hold a separate vote.