McCullen v. Coakley

Becket Role:


Decision Date:
June 26, 2014
Deciding Court:
U.S. Supreme Court


Case Summary

Meet Eleanor McCullen   

Since 2000 Eleanor McCullen has knitted baby hats and lovingly counseled women outside of abortion clinics near her home in Massachusetts. A radiant and cheerful woman of faith, Eleanor is welcoming as she offers help, hope, and love in her work as a sidewalk counselor.  Since she began her work outside the Boston abortion clinic, Eleanor has helped hundreds of women who felt they had nowhere else to turn. Her refrigerator door is filled with pictures of all the children she has helped save. All of this life-saving work began by a simple, quiet conversation with a 77 year-old grandmother on a sidewalk.

Eleanor aspires to see mothers become parents and to see families flourish by an expectant mother’s decision to say yes to life. As a sidewalk counselor Eleanor ensures struggling women she meets outside the clinic do not feel alone in their journey and that, while it may not seem like it, they have a choice. She also directs expectant mothers wanting to keep their child to  important resources they need such as housing, medical care, sonograms, and food supplies – she even hosts baby showers!

Protecting Free Speech and Religious Freedom

In 2007, the state of Massachusetts passed a law that imposed a 35-foot buffer zone around every abortion clinic in the state. The law forced Eleanor off the sidewalk and into the streets, effectively halting her sidewalk ministry. The buffer zone also violated Eleanor’s constitutional right to freely and peacefully converse on a public sidewalk.

Central to our First Amendment is the right to a free and peaceful exchange of ideas, which requires an individual’s ability to have personal conversations and distribute literature in public places. Under the new law it would have been a crime punishable with jail time if Eleanor so much as uttered, “Good Morning, Jesus loves you,” to a passerby.

The buffer zone not only restricted the freedom of speech, but also religious freedom.  One of Eleanor’s co-plaintiffs, a Catholic priest, wanted to provide religious counseling to women in need.  Another simply wanted to stand silently on the sidewalk and pray.  Yet the Massachusetts’s law banned all of these peaceful activities. By stopping religious people from offering help to women in need, the law also harmed countless women by depriving them peaceful and often welcomed offers of help.

Defending The First Amendment  

Becket’s Senior Counsel Mark Rienzi was there to defend Eleanor’s right to talk and provide a listening ear in accordance with her religious beliefs. Rienzi and co-counsel Michael DePrimo represented Eleanor for over 7 years and, along with the Alliance Defending Freedom took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. In January 2014, Mark Rienzi argued the case before the Supreme Court and that June, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Massachusetts buffer zone law violated the First Amendment because it overly interfered with people’s rights to converse and interact with others.

Today, Eleanor continues to knit baby hats and work as a sidewalk counselor without government censoring her free speech. Her brave stance protected her right to freedom of speech and that of so many others.

Case Information

Becket Role:
Case Start Date:
January 16, 2008
Deciding Court:
U.S. Supreme Court
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts
Supreme Court Status:
Practice Area(s):