NH “buffer zone” court hearing cancelled; enforcement of law remains on hold

Peaceful prayer witnesses outside Concord's Feminist Health Center
Peaceful prayer witnesses outside Concord’s Feminist Health Center

Concord, NH
U.S. District Judge Joseph Laplante has ordered that New Hampshire’s new “buffer zone” law not be enforced against peaceful pro-life witnesses outside abortion facilities until further notice. The judge’s order, dated July 23, followed a telephone conference with representatives of all parties to a lawsuit filed earlier this month seeking to block the law.

Laplante’s order cancelled the scheduled July 25 preliminary-injunction hearing on the new law. He has requested that all parties to the lawsuit jointly file a status report within 60 days to advise the court of any “legislative, executive, judicial or factual” developments relevant to the lawsuit.

The judge’s order means that even if an abortion facility puts ups “patient safety zone” signs in an attempt to block peaceful demonstrators, the law will not be enforced for now. Laplante wrote that any defendant learning about an abortion facility’s plan to post such signs must give immediate notice to plaintiffs’ attorneys and to the court. Such a move would trigger a rescheduled preliminary-injunction hearing.

Seven pro-life activists are challenging the buffer zones. Defendants include Attorney General Joseph Foster, five county attorneys, and five municipalities.

In a court filing prior to Judge Laplante’s order, Attorney General Foster argued that since no zones have been posted yet and therefore no enforcement has taken place, the seven plaintiffs have nothing to complain about. Foster has expressed confidence that the New Hampshire law is different from the Massachusetts buffer zone law recently rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That sounds like “we have a law, and I’m happy to defend the law, but we’re not enforcing the law, so make this case go away.”

Can the law be repealed within 60 days? Not without a special session of the legislature. With House leaders who favor restrictions on pro-life speech (including silent prayer), forget any special session. What WILL happen within 60 days is a primary election, involving many legislators who voted on the buffer-zone bill. That’ll help set the stage for the next legislative session in 2015, when perhaps the First Amendment will fare better.

Text of Judge Laplante’s July 23 order