Metro Louisville

After years of trying, advocates secured a win Thursday when Metro Council passed an ordinance to create a “safety zone” near health care facilities. It’s an effort long in the making by those opposed to the tactics of anti-abortion protesters who regularly demonstrate outside the EMW Women’s Surgical Center on Market St. — Kentucky’s only abortion clinic.

A split council passed the ordinance in a 14-11 vote, with all seven Republicans voting against. Four majority caucus members joined the dissenters: Rick Blackwell (D-12), Mark Fox (D-13), Cindi Fowler (D-14) and Kevin Triplett (D-15).

Sponsor Cassie Chambers Armstrong (D-8) described the measure as “content neutral,” adding that it dictates not what someone can say but where they can say it.

“If we step back and we just think about this from a common sense level, of course, 10 feet where you can’t block, detain, impede or hinder another person doesn’t violate your First Amendment right to expression,” she said.

Cosponsor Jecorey Arthur (D-4) represents the district where EMW is located. He said protesters create an unsafe environment for patients approaching the clinic’s entrance.

Arthur said data provided by the Louisville Metro Police Department comparing reports from different health clinics and on incidents in front of EMW was potentially biased. Instead, he referred to separate data from independent legal observers who recorded 1,431 incidents involving harassment, assault and other actions against patients on the sidewalk outside EMW in a period of 17 months.

“That’s a very unsafe sidewalk, but you can change that tonight,” Arthur said. “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.”

But some council members said the “sidewalk counselors” want to help and educate people who may not know they have alternatives to abortion.

Robin Engel (R-22) has participated in handing out leaflets and praying outside the clinic, which provides abortion and other health services.

He questioned whether the legislation respects the First Amendment, saying it is divisive for the city.

“Just when our city’s celebrating a very successful Kentucky Derby and have just begun the healing process in this community, we now find ourselves, once again, addressing this legislation,” Engel said.

The most recent effort to pass this type of ordinance narrowly failed in council last August, amid the raging pandemic and protests for racial justice. Its sponsors attempted to tie the need for a buffer zone to COVID-19, citing the public health risks associated with protesters approaching patients entering the clinic during the pandemic.

This time, the council approved a 10-foot-wide zone extending from a facility’s entrance to the nearest curb. The ordinance specifies Public Works will create the lines marking the zone at the request of the facility. The measure bans anyone from “knowingly” impeding another’s entry or exit from a health care facility with a safety zone, as well as “knowingly” obstructing the zone during operating hours.

Lily Burris contributed to this story.

Amina Elahi is WFPL's City Editor.