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NH Senate passes bill keeping protesters 25 feet from abortion clinic entrances

Senior Political Reporter

February 19. 2014 3:55PM

CONCORD – With four Republicans joining all 11 Democrats, the state Senate on Wednesday passed on a 15-9 roll call vote legislation that would require protesters to stay at least 25 feet from any clinic in the state where abortions are performed.

The key vote came after the Senate voted 14-10 against tabling the bill and then voted 14-10 rejecting last week's Senate Judiciary Committee 3-2 recommendation that the bill be killed.

Four Republicans joined all 11 Democrats in favor of the bill.

In the final vote, Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, switched to side with the majority to pass the bill, saying afterward that he "just got tired of the droning on about the whole thing" and wanted to put the issue behind him. Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, and Sen. Bob Odell of Lempster, and Nancy Stiles of Hampton are the other Republicans who backed the bill.

Although the bill, which now goes directly to the House, was drafted primarily to address weekly and, proponents say "escalating" protests at the Planned Parenthood facility on Penacook Street in Manchester, it would apply to all five clinics in the state if passed into law.

The bill's "statement of findings and purpose" says recent demonstrations "outside of reproductive health care clinics have resulted in the fear and intimidation of patients and employees," and have caused patients to believe "their safety and right to privacy are threatened."

The bill forbids anyone from being on a "public way or sidewalk adjacent to a reproductive health care facility within a radius of 25 feet of any portion of an entrance, exit or driveway." It exempts those who are simply walking past the facility to get to another destination.

A law enforcement officer would issue one verbal warning to anyone who encroaches the buffer , and anyone who does not comply would be guilty of a violation.

A similar law in Massachusetts, setting 35-foot buffer zones, is being challenged, was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in January and has been taken under advisement. Proponents of New Hampshire's Senate Bill 319 said concerns outlined in the challenge to the Massachusetts law are addressed by the bill.

"This bill balances public safety and free speech," said the chief sponsor, state Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester. She said the bill "provides for free speech and accommodates public safety at the same time."

Soucy noted that state law already provides for a 10-foot buffer zone around entrances to voting places and requires that protesters stay at least 150 feet from funeral ceremonies.

She also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court mandates a 250-foot buffer for protesters at its building in Washington, D.C.

She said that if the court strikes down the Massachusetts law, changes could be made to Senate Bill 319 become either before or after it becomes law.

While some senators wanted to table the bill to await the Supreme Court's decision, Soucy said, "The problem is current and ongoing, and we need to act now for our constituents."

But Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sharon Carson, R-Hudson, said that while the committee heard some testimony that clinics patients felt they were being harassed by protesters, "we also heard stories from the other side, about people who would peacefully pray and people who would bring their children with them.

"If someone felt threatened," she said, "someone could have called the police. We heard a lot of conflicting information."

Carson also said that although the proponents "crafted (the bill) carefully, the key elements mirror the case in Massachusetts.

"This is about first amendment rights," Carson said, "Whether you agree with the speech or not, these folks have the right to be there."

She said if the bill becomes law, "We'll run smack into a First Amendment violation."

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England praised the vote.

"A woman seeking reproductive health care should not be harassed, obstructed or intimidated by individuals who oppose the decision she has made about her own pregnancy," said senior policy adviser Jennifer Frizzell. "A patient safety zone surrounding the entrances to reproductive health centers will ensure the privacy and dignity of patients, while improving public safety in communities where these health centers are located."

Also Wednesday, the Senate:

- passed on a voice vote legislation allowing businesses to set themselves up as "Benefit Corporations".

The sponsor, Sen. Molly Kelly, D-Keene, said that while the purpose of a traditional corporation is to maximize profits for shareholders, Benefit Corporations add the object of pursuing "a positive benefit to society and the environment."

Kelly said there is no tax advantage to the Benefit Corporation and the advantages include the ability to market a company's social concerns to consumers and investors.

Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, however, warned, "All this legislation is doing is trying to crate a different class of businesses and I fear the ramifications, that these corporations will come back here and seek tax advantages. He warned it will create "class warfare."

But Kelly said 20 states already allow Benefits Corporations and "if we don't move on it we will be left behind.

- passed on a voice vote legislation that allows school districts to decide not to reappoint a teacher after three consecutive years of teaching. Current law requires five years.

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