Supreme Court ruling protects pro-life pregnancy centers’ free speech

Court decision blocks California disclosure law

On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked enforcement of a California law that requires pro-life pregnancy centers to provide information to women about state-funded abortions.

In a 5-4 ruling, the justices said California’s 2015 Reproductive FACT Act likely violates the First Amendment.

Both sides said the decision on National Institutes of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra essentially strikes down the law.

NIFLA, a nonprofit organization that supports pro-life centers, had challenged the FACT Act saying it violated the centers’ First Amendment free speech rights. The state said the law was necessary to let women know their options.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments March 20. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority decision.

“Licensed clinics must provide a government-drafted script about the availability of state-sponsored services, as well as contact information for how to obtain them. One of those services is abortion—the very practice that petitioners are devoted to opposing,” Thomas wrote.

“By requiring petitioners to inform women how they can obtain state-subsidized abortions—at the same time petitioners try to dissuade women from choosing that option—…plainly ‘alters the content’ of petitioners’ speech.

“California cannot co-opt the licensed facilities to deliver its message for it.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch joined Thomas to form the majority opinion.

Dissenting were Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The winners were elated.

“No one should be forced by the government to express a message that violates their convictions, especially on deeply divisive subjects such as abortion,” Michael Farris, a lawyer and leader of the Alliance Defending Freedom, who argued on behalf of NIFLA before the Supreme Court in March, said in a statement.

“In this case, the government used its power to force pro-life pregnancy centers to provide free advertising for abortion. The Supreme Court said that the government can’t do that, and that it must respect pro-life beliefs.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra described the Supreme Court ruling as “unfortunate.”

“But our work to ensure that Californians receive accurate information about their health care options will continue,” he said in a statement.

Jan McIntosh, vice president of Catholic Charities’ Marisol Health, which runs clinics offering licensed, comprehensive health care services to women in Denver and Lafayette, Colo., praised the ruling.

“We applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold our free speech right to provide the best possible medical care with compassion and respect—the kind that women deserve,” McIntosh told the Denver Catholic.

“This is a victory for women. Our medical clinics provide women in our community with life-affirming health care, and their response has been overwhelming.”

Since its inception two years ago, Marisol Health has provided care to more than 1,800 patients—70 percent of whom had incomes under $30,000, McIntosh said. Some 47 percent of clients also received counseling or social casework services.

The victory comes at a time when pro-abortion groups are using propaganda billboards and video to undermine the work of pro-life pregnancy centers.

In May, Marisol Health threatened legal action against ProgressNow Colorado, a liberal advocacy group, demanding that Marisol’s image and name be removed from a social media video by the group that mischaracterizes Marisol’s health care and implies it to be a “fake clinic.”

“When our work is misrepresented in the media we want to do what we can to correct those misperceptions,” McIntosh said. “That’s the best thing we can do for the women who can benefit from the unique model of service we provide with the medical care and the social and human services so closely integrated with one another.”

The Associated Press, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.

Featured image by Zach Gibson | Getty Images

COMING UP: Supreme Court’s NIFLA ruling draws praise from pro-life groups

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“No one should be forced by the government to express a message that violates their convictions,” said Michael Farris, president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, which argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of NIFLA, a non-profit that provides legal counsel to pro-life pregnancy centers around the country.

“The government used its power to force pro-life pregnancy centers to provide free advertising for abortion. The Supreme Court said that the government can’t do that,” Farris said in a statement.

The June 26 ruling in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra involved California’s “Reproductive FACT Act,” which requires pro-life pregnancy centers to display a notice informing patients about California programs that, among other things, can provide a free or low-cost abortion for eligible women, and phone numbers of places to obtain them.

The law also mandates that any non-medical pregnancy center, such as one that distributes free maternity clothing or baby items to a pregnant woman, must display a notice explaining that it is not licensed as a medical facility in the state of California. There is no current licensing scheme in the state of California for non-medical facilities who distribute baby supplies.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court found that the “petitioners are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the FACT Act violates the First Amendment.” It sent the case back to a lower court to be reconsidered, with the understanding that the lower court was incorrect to treat the speech of pregnancy centers as a lesser category of free speech simply because it is “professional speech.”

Anne O’Connor, the vice president of NIFLA, said in a statement that Tuesday’s decision “is not just about whether or not to hand out abortion information on a piece of paper or post it on the walls of our pro-life centers.”

“It is about the right belonging to all American citizens to be free from government-compelled speech, and from being coerced into promoting a message that contradicts their values.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, also offered praise for the Supreme Court’s decision. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was one of several religious groups that had filed a brief in favor of NIFLA.

Dolan said the court had “affirmed that the First Amendment protects the right of all organizations to choose for themselves not only what to say, but what not to say.”

The decision is “an important development in protecting pro-life pregnancy centers from future efforts to compel speech in violation of their deeply held beliefs,” the cardinal said.

NARAL, a group that supports expanded abortion rights around the country, objected to the ruling, posting on Twitter that the Supreme Court had “just ruled that unlicensed fake women’s health centers are free to dress up as doctors & deliberately lie to women” about reproductive health.

NARAL also laid blame on the newest Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch for the decision, saying the “anti-choice extremist” judge “sits in a stolen seat.”

However, March for Life President Jeannie Mancini countered, pregnancy centers serve a “life-affirming mission,” offering support that includes child care, clothing, and diapers.

“Pregnancy care centers in the United States offer collectively over $100 million in resources to women and men facing an unexpected pregnancy. And they operate out of the sheer goodness of their heart, to help these people in difficult scenarios,” she said.

“California has been forcing these centers to advertise for abortion, which goes against the very reason for these centers. We are delighted that the Supreme Court today protected free speech rights and protected the right of pregnancy care centers to be able to provide these wonderful resources.”

Americans United for Life, a group involved in crafting state-level pro-life legislation, said the ruling is a victory for “the thousands of women who go to the centers seeking life-affirming care and support.”

“AUL is encouraged by this ruling, and our legal team will continue to support the excellent work of pregnancy care centers,” the group said in a statement.

The article was originally written by Christine Rousselle at Catholic News Agency and is reprinted here with permission.