By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Over the objections of Catholic Church officials who are urging them to slow down, the House on Wednesday is expected to consider legislation seeking to protect visitors to reproductive health facilities in Massachusetts.
The U.S Supreme Court unanimously ruled in late June that the state's 35-foot buffer zone law, created by the Legislature in 2007, was unconstitutional. That prompted a furious scramble to write a new measure and the Senate last Wednesday unanimously approved its proposal (S 2283) on a voice vote just hours after it cleared committee.
House lawmakers will debate a bill responding to the ruling during a formal session on Wednesday, Rep. Paul Donato, a Medford Democrat and division chair, told the News Service after presiding during Tuesday's session.
Proponents say the bill's passage is needed to ensure women are able to safely enter and exit reproductive health clinics, while opponents say the legislation is unnecessary and could trigger another legal challenge.
The Senate bill allows law enforcement officials to issue a "withdrawal order," in writing, to individuals who substantially impede access to a reproductive health clinic.
The individuals would then be required to stay at least 25 feet away from the facility's entrances and driveways for eight hours, or until the facility closes, "whichever is earlier.
A 25-foot boundary must be marked, according to the bill, and the law would be publicly posted.
Roman Catholic bishops, through the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, say lawmakers should hold off on acting on legislation and revisit the issue when a new legislative session begins next January.
Noting that the formal calendar ends on July 31, James Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, told the News Service on Monday that holding off would give "both sides" an opportunity to research and voice their views.
The Catholic Conference is the lobbying and public policy arm of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts, representing the four dioceses, including Boston, Springfield, Worcester and Fall River.
"This just seems to be something that is rushed through at the last minute, which is unfortunate," Driscoll said.
Driscoll said there are already laws on the books about disturbing the peace. "It seems to be reducing the buffer zone from 35 to 25 feet," he said of the Senate legislation.
On his way out of the State House after a Friday press conference with Gov. Deval Patrick on border-crossing children from Central America, Cardinal Sean O'Malley declined to stop and comment on the bill.