On a vote of 14-4, the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee voted “inexpedient to legislate” (ITL) today on HB 124, which seeks to repeal the buffer zone law. The full House will take up the bill at a date yet to be determined.
The law, written to give abortion facility managers authority to restrict public access to public areas, has never been used since its passage in 2014. Its clear incompatibility with the U.S. Supreme Court’s McCullen decision might be the reason. Only the abortion facility managers know for sure.
All Democrats on the committee were joined by Republicans Edward Gordon (R-Bristol) and Joe Alexander (R-Goffstown) in voting to kill the repeal effort. Voting against the ITL motion were Republicans Kurt Wuelper (R-Strafford), Gary Hopper (R-Weare), Barbara Griffin (R-Goffstown), and Mark McLean (R-Manchester).
“For me, it comes down to a free speech issue,” said Rep. McLean. “No clinic throughout the state has actually put [the buffer zone’s] provisions into play.”
Rep. Wuelper, the bill’s chief sponsor, told his colleagues before the vote, “[The buffer zone law’s] very intent is to restrict speech and religion in a public space based on the content of speech. [The law] hasn’t done any good in five years. It won’t do any good in 50 years.”
Not so, countered Rep. Paul Berch (D-Westmoreland). “Perhaps it’s had a salutary effect,” he said. “The facts that were present [when the law was passed] have not changed.” He’s right about that much: McCullen was present when the law was passed and it’s still binding precedent. Rep. Berch also said, “The law was drafted and passed after the Supreme Court decision [in McCullen].” He may have forgotten that the buffer zone law was drafted no later than the opening of the legislative session in January 2014, while the McCullen decision came down in June of that year.
“This is a church-state issue,” added Rep. Timothy Horrigan (D-Durham), saying he had documentation that one particular religious entity, the Catholic Church, opposed the buffer zone. “I am a Roman Catholic myself.” His one-religion claim probably comes as a surprise to people like Rev. Don Colageo of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Manchester, who has frequently led prayer vigils at an area abortion site. Further, said Rep. Horrigan, “There isn’t a First Amendment right to provide counseling or advocacy if you’re not licensed.”
The ITL motion was made by Rep. Debra Altschiller (D-Stratham) and seconded by Rep. Sandra Keans (D-Rochester.)