An anti-abortion group can open in West Raleigh next to an abortion clinic, after all.
The city this week granted permission for Hand of Hope Pregnancy Resource Center, which encourages alternatives to abortion, to operate out of a house it owns at 1522 Jones Franklin Road. The property is adjacent to A Preferred Women’s Health Center, which offers abortion services.
The move comes three months after the City Council rejected Hand of Hope’s request to rezone the property from residential to commercial use, barring the nonprofit from setting up there. In August, Hand of Hope filed a lawsuit against Raleigh in federal court that claims the city violated its constitutional rights to free speech, religion and equal treatment under the law.
When it initially applied for the rezoning, Hand of Hope, which offers religious-based advice about pregnancy, had classified itself as a medical facility. In September, the group asked Raleigh to reinterpret its classification, and on Tuesday city staff deemed it more of a civic organization.
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Civic groups, unlike medical facilities, can operate on residential property. So Hand of Hope does not need the site to be rezoned by the City Council.
Hand of Hope offers pregnancy tests and non-diagnostic ultrasounds. But “based on the most recent information provided by the applicant, staff does not believe that the described use is medical in nature,” Travis Crane, an assistant planning director for the city, wrote in a planning document.
The organization’s volunteer counselors also fail to meet the state’s definition of counselors, according to Crane.
In North Carolina, the definition of counseling refers to “the professional practice of counseling and not counseling provided within a religious context performed by non-licensed and non-professional persons as a part of a religious practice,” wrote Crane, who declined to comment for this story.
Before opening its office on Jones Franklin Road, Hand of Hope must meet commercial building code standards. City staff, not council members, will determine whether the space complies with codes.
Tonya Baker Nelson, Hand of Hope’s executive director, praised city staff for its “common sense” determination.
“If a nonprofit civic club like Kiwanis or a religious group like a church can locate at this property, surely we should be free to provide pregnant women free pregnancy resources and share the love of Jesus with them here,” Nelson said.
But the organization could face pushback. Residents who believe city staff erred in classifying Hand of Hope as a civic organization can file an “appeal of administration action” within 30 days. Appeals go before the city’s Board of Adjustment.
Last summer, the issue divided the community. Supporters said the group has a right to operate its offices on its own property, while opponents feared anti-abortion protesters would harass women seeking services at A Preferred Women’s Health Center.
Residents yelled at each other at community meetings, sent dozens of emails to council members and went to City Hall for a hearing.
Calla Hales, a spokeswoman for A Preferred Women’s Health Center, said she was shocked by the city’s decision. The clinic will research paths for an appeal, she said.
“We, as a women’s rights organization and health care provider, are disappointed with the reversal and will appeal it to ensure the safety and privacy of our patients and staffers,” Hales said.
Anti-abortion groups often protest on the sidewalk outside the clinic. Nelson said Hand of Hope doesn’t participate in the protests and won’t allow protesters on its property.
None of the organization’s 23 staff members were listed on any of the 26 protest permits issued for Jones Franklin Road in 2015, according to city records.
“While I have concerns about organizations with contrasting missions operating next to each other, I acknowledge that everyone has rights,” said councilwoman Kay Crowder, who represents West Raleigh.
Other council members declined to comment Thursday, citing the lawsuit. Nelson declined to say whether Hand of Hope would drop the lawsuit.
“Our main goal is to simply occupy our space,” she said.