Judge issues order for buffer zone outside abortion clinic

Anti-abortion activists were ordered by a judge on Friday to stay away from a "buffer zone" outside Kentucky's only abortion clinic, which is bracing for protests from a national group.

U.S. District Judge David J. Hale issued a temporary restraining order that federal prosecutors sought as a pre-emptive move ahead of vigils organized by Operation Save America, a Texas-based Christian fundamentalist group. The judge's order is aimed at preventing abortion opponents from impeding access to EMW Women's Surgical Center in Louisville.

The order was aimed specifically at nearly a dozen anti-abortion activists who were arrested in May when police said they blocked access to the downtown clinic. The judge's action also applies to anyone else "acting in concert or participation" with them.

The buffer zone in front of the clinic gives patients a "small measure of relief," ensuring they can enter, said Brigitte Amiri, an attorney for the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.

"While the government may not keep people off the public sidewalk lightly, the individuals who blockaded EMW have a clear record of breaking the law," she said. "No one should be prevented from a medical appointment by an egregious blockade of their health care provider."

Operation Save America director Rusty Thomas responded: "We're going to do what we always do. We're going to exercise our ministry on the sidewalk, and let the chips falls where they may."

Thomas' group is targeting the Louisville clinic with the goal of making Kentucky a national model in its push to end abortion.

He later said his group does not intend to use the same tactics that led to the May arrests.

"Fortunately, we do not see that anything in Judge Hale's order hinders any of our planned, lawful, First Amendment activities to minister," Thomas said in a statement.

U.S. Attorney John E. Kuhn Jr. had cited a federal law guaranteeing access to clinic entrances in requesting the judge's order to create a "narrowly tailored buffer zone" outside the clinic.

"The small buffer zone is designed to protect both the rights of individuals seeking access to EMW and the protected First Amendment rights of individuals wishing to communicate directly with EMW's patients and providers," Kuhn's office said in a statement.

The judge's order comes as supporters of Operation Save America descended on Louisville for weeklong vigils starting this weekend. They're planning vigils outside the clinic and elsewhere in the city, including the neighborhoods where the clinic's doctors live, organizers said.

The buffer zone is directly outside the surgical center's entrance, between clinic property and the curbside patient drop-off zone, Hale's ruling said. The boundaries are about 15 feet from north to south and about 7.5 feet from east to west, it said.

Hale said his order's restrictions within the buffer zone apply only during the clinic's hours of operation, plus two hours before and after.

"This temporary restraining order does not restrict any of the rights of the defendants, including their First Amendment rights, outside the zone," the judge said.

He ordered the U.S. Marshals Service to post his order at the clinic.