The Mt. Juliet Board of Commissioners agreed to pay out $225,000 in a settlement with local abortion clinic Carafem during its latest meeting, ending a legal battle dating back to December 2019.
Commissioners previously repealed an ordinance that effectively banned surgical abortions in the city limits after a federal court ruled against it in May, citing a likelihood that it violated due process under the 14th Amendment.
That ordinance restricted surgical abortions to industrial zones, and originally included language that banned them within 1,000 feet of churches, schools and other facilities. It was later amended to 200 feet after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city on behalf of Carafem.
“The big picture is that this settlement is going to put an end to efforts by Mt. Juliet politicians to interfere with abortions for political reasons,” Andrew Beck, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, said. “It’s unfortunate they had to pay the price they did … hopefully that will teach them a lesson on not violating folks’ constitutional rights.”
When the ordinance was originally passed in March 2019, commissioners indicated support for the restriction based on both anti-abortion positions and talks with community members.
“I was disgusted to hear they plan to open in my district and my town,” former District 4 Commissioner Brian Abston said before voting in favor of the ordinance. “I realize they have rights, but my constituents and I don’t want it here. I am pro-life so I will take any action possible within the law to make sure it’s not here.”
Mt. Juliet Mayor Ed Hagerty also told the Mt. Juliet News in April that Carafem had opened without applying for permits.
“If you live in a subdivision and one of your neighbors wants to open up a gas station, they can’t do that,” he said. “That would infringe on your rights as a property owner. We have zoning in our city, and every city, so that uses are proper. All we did is what we do time to time, is change and modify the zoning ordinance.”
City Manager Kenny Martin referred the Democrat to City Attorney Gino Marchetti for any further comments from Mt. Juliet on the lawsuit. At press time, Marchetti has not returned a request for comment on the settlement, which also prevents the city from approving any “substantially similar” ordinances for one year.
“I certainly hope and expect that it will dissuade them from doing it again in the future,” Beck said. “If the city, at the end of this one-year period, were to attempt a similar ordinance we could just take them to court and get the exact same result.”
The settlement also permanently grandfathers abortions and other health services in as uses for Carafem’s property — even if the zoning maps and regulations later change — and Mt. Juliet cannot stop Carafem from moving to another location in the city zoned for medical services. Beck said those measures will help the clinic meet a need within the community.
“One of the factors that led Carafem to want to open this clinic is that in their Atlanta facility, they were getting patients who had driven from the Nashville area,” he said, noting that another clinic located in Nashville has a lengthy delay period due to its appointment volume. “They were seeing people who didn’t have access to care locally and were driving hundreds of miles from out of state.”
Several members of the community have opposed Carafem since it opened in March 2019, with local churches and nonprofit organizations like Wilson County Right to Life holding prayer gatherings and peaceful protests on the property.
“It is appalling that, once again, taxpayer dollars are flowing into the coffers of abortion providers,” Will Brewer, Tennessee Right to Life’s legal counsel and director of government relations, said in an email. “This legal settlement underscores the need for well-devised solutions to protect communities who have no desire for abortion providers in their neighborhoods.”
Others in the community are utilizing Carafem’s surgical abortion services and could still qualify for medical abortions using a pill during the time the city’s ordinance was in effect. Medical abortions are considered effective until approximately 10 weeks of pregnancy.
“They’ve been able to provide surgical abortions ever since they were allowed to by the court in May,” Beck said. “They have provided care to over 100 people since that time, and we’re expecting those kinds of numbers as people continue seeking care in the future.”