Federal Judge Allows Louisville To Set Up Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone, For Now

Sep 8, 2021

The planned buffer zone in front of the clinic entrance shown in orange and white.
Credit Kentucky Equal Justice Network

A federal judge has ruled that Louisville Metro Government can create a buffer zone in front of the downtown EMW Women’s Surgical Center, Kentucky’s only abortion clinic, while a lawsuit challenging the measure moves forward. 

Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky denied a motion for a preliminary injunction against the city last week. The motion was part of a lawsuit filed by the Louisville-based nonprofit Sisters for Life. In court filings, the group said it has operated a sidewalk ministry in front of the clinic since 2003, informing people entering about “other life choices available to them…other than abortion.” Louisville officials had previously agreed not to implement the 10-foot buffer zone until the court had ruled on the motion. 

In her ruling, Grady Jennings said the claims by Sisters for Life that the buffer zone “practically completely envelopes [sic] the entire city block” is a misreading of the ordinance Metro Council passed in May. She also dismissed the argument that the ordinance substantially burdens the group’s religious practice.

“[Sisters for Life] will be able to continue their sidewalk counseling, at a normal conversational distance, even after the buffer zone is demarcated,” Grady Jennings wrote. “The only thing Plaintiff’s would be prevented from doing as a result of the buffer zone is physically obstructing a patient from entering the healthcare facility.”

Despite ruling against the preliminary injunction, Grady Jennings will allow the lawsuit against Louisville Metro to proceed. 

Sisters for Life have argued the 10-foot buffer zone keeps them from acting on their religious beliefs, exercising free speech and assembling on public property. In addition to the injunction, they are asking the court for unspecified “nominal damages.” 

“The buffer zone compromises [Sisters for Life’s] ability to initiate the close, personal conversations that [they] view as essential to their sidewalk ministry,” the lawsuit reads.

Under the ordinance, anyone who violates the buffer zone around the clinic would be given one warning before being issued a minimum fine of $150.

Proponents of the ordinance, like District 4 Councilman Jecorey Arthur, said the buffer prioritizes the safety of those seeking an abortion — people who may be subject to harassment or assault by demonstrators.

“That’s a very unsafe sidewalk, but you can change that tonight,” Arthur said before the May vote. “I’m asking my colleagues to, please, use common sense and vote yes so that your constituents can have access – safe access – to health care.”

A date for a hearing on the merits of the lawsuit has not yet been set.