An anti-abortion group has filed a federal lawsuit against the city after the Raleigh City Council rejected a rezoning request that would have allowed the organization to provide counseling and classes in its property next to an abortion clinic.
A Hand of Hope Pregnancy Resource Center filed the lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh and 44 counties east of the city.
The organization contends the city violated the First and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution by denying it the right to free speech, religion and equal treatment under the law.
In July, the City Council voted against A Hand of Hope’s request to rezone a home the organization bought on Jones Franklin Road to allow for a counseling center, where pregnant women would be encouraged to consider alternatives to abortion. The property sits next to Preferred Women’s Health Center, which offers abortion services.
Under the city’s zoning code, only residential uses are allowed on the property purchased in 2015. So the group asked the City Council to rezone the land to allow for “office mixed use.”
“We own that property, and we think we have a constitutional right to operate our ministry out of property we own,” said Tonya Baker Nelson, A Hand of Hope’s executive director, in an interview Thursday.
The group’s leaders have said they wanted to draw more clients and save money by relocating their office from a space they lease less than a mile away in West Raleigh.
The issue divided council members and neighbors. Some thought the ideological differences between A Hand of Hope and Preferred Women’s Health Center would raise tensions in the community, while others argued that A Hand of Hope has a right to operate in property it owns.
The council unanimously rejected the rezoning request July 5. After the vote, councilwoman Kay Crowder, who represents that area of Raleigh, read a prepared statement, saying the property would better comply with the city’s Future Land Use Map if it were rezoned as part of a larger commercial project that enveloped all of Woodsdale Road, a dead-end street next to the property.
As it is, Woodsdale only has residential properties.
“This coordinated approach would produce a more efficient use of the land,” Crowder said during the council meeting. “In contrast, this lot-by-lot piecemeal non-residential development will produce small-scale offices on small lots.”
Nelson said she thinks the city’s actions were less about zoning maps and more ideologically based.
“There seems to be an agenda on the city’s part,” Nelson said.
The lawsuit claims: “Upon information and belief, the City Council denied the application because the City Council did not want Hand of Hope, which communicated the gospel message and a pro-life message, located next door to an established abortion clinic.”
Tom McCormick, Raleigh’s attorney, said in an email Thursday that he had not seen the lawsuit. He said he was traveling out of the country and would not return until Monday.
Before the City Council rejected A Hand of Hope’s plan, the neighborhood’s Citizen Advisory Council voted in favor of it, 30-17, according to the lawsuit. The Raleigh Planning Commission unanimously voted to recommend the City Council approve the project.
A Hand of Hope formed out of a small Bible group in 2004, according to the lawsuit. The group provides “accurate and complete information about both prenatal development and abortion.”
The group bought the property at 1522 Jones Franklin Road last year for $309,000, according to the lawsuit. It planned to host its programs there, including free pregnancy support services, life skills classes, Bible studies and prayer groups.
“Simply put, Raleigh is censoring Hand of Hope’s exercise of its constitutionally protected expressive conduct based on the content and viewpoints of the communications,” the lawsuit says.