Catholic pro-life sidewalk counselor asks high court to review buffer zone precedent

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Pro-life sidewalk counselor
A pro-life sidewalk counselor holds a rosary and literature outside an abortion clinic. (CNS photo/Rose Ybarra,The Valley Catholic)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — A Catholic sidewalk counselor has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review one of its previous rulings and a New York county law prohibiting pro-life protesters from approaching people outside abortion clinics, the law firm representing her said July 21.

Becket, a Washington-based religious liberty law firm, said it is representing Debra Vitagliano as she seeks for the high court to review its 2000 ruling in Hill v. Colorado, which involved a Colorado law enacted in 1993. That law regulated First Amendment activity within 100 feet of an entrance to any health care facility and prohibited approaching a person within eight feet without their consent to provide any protest materials or counseling.

100-foot zone around clinics

According to Becket, Vitagliano is a devout Catholic and occupational therapist for children with special needs, who feels called to share alternatives with women considering abortions.

However, a Westchester County, New York, law establishes a 100-foot zone around abortion clinics, which is inclusive of public sidewalks, and prohibits anyone from getting within eight feet of another person in that radius without explicit consent, similar to the law upheld in Hill.

Motivated by her Catholic faith, Debra Vitagliano is challenging a New York local ordinance that prevents sidewalk counselors from providing life-saving resources to women at abortion centers. Vitagliano is pictured in a May 9, 2023, photo. (OSV News photo/Becket)

“I am called to be a compassionate voice to abortion-vulnerable women, letting them know that they are loved, supported, and can choose life for their babies,” Debra Vitagliano, the sidewalk counselor and Westchester County resident behind the suit, said in a statement. “I pray that the Justices will take this case and allow me to help women in need.”

Denying a First Amendment right

Becket argued in a press statement that the Hill decision does not adequately protect the First Amendment right to free speech.

Mark Rienzi, president and CEO at Becket, said in a statement, “No one should be arrested and put behind bars for having peaceful, face-to-face conversations on a public sidewalk.”

“The Court should fix the mistake of Hill and make clear that the First Amendment protects these offers of help and information to women in need,” he said.

Previously in Vitagliano’s challenge, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan found that the Westchester County law was valid due to the high court’s ruling in Hill, which upheld a nearly-identical Colorado law. The appellate court said it would abide by that ruling unless the Supreme Court were to overturn its own precedent. But it also confirmed Vitagliano has standing to ask the high court to review the law.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned its prior precedent in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion a constitutional right with its June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. But it remains to be seen if the court will take up a challenge to its 2000 ruling in Hill v. Colorado.

In that case, the high court upheld the Colorado law in a 6-3 decision, finding it did not restrict speech itself, but only where it could occur, and was applied to all protestors equally.

Kate Scanlon

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington.