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New Hampshire law creating clinic buffers is target of lawsuit

By Ted Siefer

MANCHESTER, N.H. (Reuters) - A conservative religious group has sued the state of New Hampshire to block a law from taking effect later this week that would establish 25-foot buffer zones around clinics offering abortions.

The Alliance Defending Freedom said in papers filed in federal court that last month's U.S. Supreme Court decision knocking down a Massachusetts law establishing similar buffer zones "eliminates any plausible legal justification for the law challenged here."

But New Hampshire officials argued on Tuesday their measure was more limited than that of Massachusetts, which prevented anti-abortion protesters from approaching within 35 feet of clinic entrances, a rule the Supreme Court said violated free speech protections.

New Hampshire Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan signed the new measure last month and a spokesman said the state's attorney general was reviewing the lawsuit filed on Monday in U.S. District Court.

"Bipartisan majorities of the New Hampshire House and Senate believed we needed to take action to ensure that women could access health care free from harassment, obstruction or threats to safety, and Governor Hassan will continue to work toward meeting that goal," spokesman William Hinkle said.

The ADF, which also filed the initial challenge to the Massachusetts law, is seeking an injunction to prevent the law from going into effect on Thursday, citing the imminent harm it poses to the free speech rights of anti-abortion campaigners.

"Freedom of speech is at its apex on public streets and sidewalks when citizens wish to persuade other citizens by means of leafleting, personal education, and peaceful protest," the ADF suit contends.

Since the Supreme Court ruling, several states and municipalities have rescinded buffer zone ordinances or stopped enforcing them. In Portland, Maine, the city council repealed a 39-foot buffer zone and called on city staff to propose alternatives. The cities of Burlington, Vermont, and Madison, Wisconsin, have stopped enforcing their buffer zone laws.

Jennifer Frizzell, the vice president for public policy for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, which operates several clinics in the state, said the organization did not intend to post a buffer zone around its clinics on Thursday.

"No matter what agenda these protesters and outside legal groups might pursue, Planned Parenthood's number one priority remains the safety and privacy of our patients and staff," Frizzell said.

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