Ohio’s only ‘sanctuary city,’ Lebanon chooses not to enforce abortion ban
The ordinance will be amended.
WARREN COUNTY, Ohio (FOX19) - The City of Lebanon on Thursday opted not to defend or enforce parts of its so-called “sanctuary city” ordinance that outlaws abortions in city limits.
Two groups represented by the ACLU of Ohio and Democracy Forward filed a federal lawsuit against the City on May 11 challenging the ordinance on constitutional grounds.
The case, according to the original complaint, “concerns whether a municipal government may enact a vague, sweeping ordinance that can be interpreted to criminalize virtually all activity even tangentially connected to abortion without providing fair notice of the specific conduct it forbids.”
The City signed a stipulation agreement Thursday in which it promised not to prosecute those who violate certain sections of the ordinance comprising its most significant prohibitions.
The City agreed not to enforce sections that make it illegal to provide transportation, instructions or money for an abortion. The City also agreed not to enforce a section making “abortion doula” services illegal.
Doulas perform loosely defined duties including giving emotional, physical and informational support to those seeking an abortion. Possible services, according to the complaint, include referring patients to help lines, holding hands, wiping away tears, offering a blanket, lending a kind ear or “sitting in supportive silence.”
The City also agreed to amend the ordinance “in response to each of the claims that Plaintiffs are asserting.” It has 60 days to do so. After the ordinance is amended, per the agreement, the plaintiffs will have an opportunity to renew their lawsuit.
The part of the ordinance specifically banning abortions being performed in Lebanon remains intact, though it has been largely moot from the start. There are not now, nor were there prior to the ordinance’s passage, facilities in Lebanon where abortions are performed. Lebanon does have a women’s center, but abortions are not carried out there.
Lebanon Mayor Mark Messer issued a statement Thursday night. It reads in part:
“News that we are not defending this legislation are greatly overstated. We will continue to work in the best interest of each of our citizens and will vigorously defend each individuals right to life.”
The ordinance was passed in May of last year, making Lebanon the first “sanctuary city for the unborn.” Nearly 50 other cities have passed similar ordinances across the US, according to the ACLU.
Lebanon remains the only city in Ohio with a municipal abortion ban. Mason passed a ban in October 2021 but it repealed that ban two months later. Bans were introduced and rejected in two other cities.
Lebanon City Council voted unanimously for the ordinance after the lone council member to oppose it resigned, citing what she described as a hyper-partisan political faction that has “hijacked” Lebanon’s legislative agenda.
The ordinance makes getting or assisting in an abortion a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to $2,500 in fines and up to a year in jail. It also bans providing money or assistance to anyone seeking an abortion, even if the abortion takes place outside of the city limits.
The ordinance’s language calls Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that permitted some abortions, a “lawless and unconstitutional act of judicial usurpation.”
A leaked draft opinion from the US Supreme Court shows it could reverse Roe later this summer.
The plaintiffs in the federal suit, the National Association of Social Workers and Women Have Options, issued the following statement Thursday afternoon:
“When we sued the City of Lebanon in early May to stop their unlawful abortion ban, they had a choice: defend the ban in court or not. Today, we heard them loud and clear: they have no defense.
“For now, the members of NASW and the abortion care advocates at WHO/O – and others who work with them – can continue to do their important work without fear of being criminalized by the Ban. Still, no one should have to worry about running afoul of this vague and potentially sweeping law.
“Our legal challenge shows how antidemocratic abortion bans like this extend beyond the rights prescribed by Roe and Casey. In this case, the ban violates the due process and free speech rights of Lebanon’s residents, social workers, abortion care advocates, and many others across the state.
We will remain vigilant and monitor how Lebanon attempts to address the ways in which its extreme abortion ban violates the U.S. and Ohio constitutions. Our lawsuit will continue until people’s rights are fully protected. "
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