By Tom Strode
WASHINGTON (BP) — Pro-life pregnancy care centers have gained a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court in their bid to be free from promoting abortion.
The high court announced Nov. 13 it would rule on a 2015 California law that requires pro-life pregnancy centers to notify their clients of the availability of abortion services elsewhere.
The justices are expected to hear oral arguments in the case in this term and issue an opinion before they adjourn next summer.
The FACT Act, as it is known, is part of an ongoing effort by abortion-rights advocates and their lawmaking allies in cities and states to limit the impact of pro-life centers that provide free services to pregnant women. With the aid of ultrasound machines that demonstrate the humanity of the unborn child, pro-life centers are helping women decide to give birth. The centers’ services also include medical consultations, baby clothing and diapers, job training, mentoring programs, and prenatal and parenting classes.
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore expressed hope the Supreme Court “will act to protect freedom instead of forcing organizations to promote the predatory industry seeking to exploit the very women they are seeking to serve.”
“Crisis pregnancy centers stand against a culture of death — offering support and life-giving alternatives,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), in written comments for Baptist Press. “Forcing these centers to advertise on behalf of the abortion industry is deeply un-American and unthinkably wrong.”
The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) — a nationwide network of more than 1,400 pro-life pregnancy centers that sued the state — applauded the high court’s decision to grant review in the case. More than 100 of the pregnancy centers NIFLA provides legal counsel, education and training for are in California.
The California law “counts among the most flagrant violations of constitutional religious and free speech rights in the nation,” NIFLA President Thomas Glessner said in a written statement. The implications of the justices’ ruling “will reverberate nationwide,” he said.
Illinois and Hawaii have enacted laws that are similar to California’s.
Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said after the high court’s announcement, “Forcing anyone to provide free advertising for the abortion industry is unthinkable — especially when it’s the government doing the forcing. The state should protect freedom of speech and freedom from coerced speech. Information about abortion is just about everywhere, so the government doesn’t need to punish pro-life centers for declining to advertise for the very act they can’t promote.”
ADF is representing NIFLA and two pregnancy centers in the challenge to the Reproductive FACT Act.
Abortion-rights advocates argued that the California law provides women with necessary information.
“Women deserve to have all the facts in order to make the best decisions about their own health, lives, and futures,” said Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-choice California.
The Reproductive FACT Act requires licensed pregnancy centers to post a notice for clients that says, “California has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services (including all FDA-approved methods of contraception), prenatal care, and abortion for eligible women. To determine whether you qualify, contact the county social services office at [insert the telephone number].”
The law also mandates that each unlicensed center provide notice it “is not licensed as a medical facility by the State of California and has no licensed medical provider who provides or directly supervises the provision of services.”
Under the law, a penalty for a first-time offense is $500, while each subsequent violation can result in a $1,000 fine.
In October 2016, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco — like a federal judge before it — refused to grant an injunction blocking the California law. In its opinion, the Ninth Circuit panel said the law does not violate the First Amendment’s protections for free speech or free exercise of religion. The law “does not discriminate based on viewpoint,” the three-judge panel said.
Local governments also have placed speech requirements on pro-life pregnancy centers, mandating they post signs, for instance, that say they do not provide abortions or contraceptives or make referrals for the services. Courts have invalidated all or most of such mandates in Austin, Texas; Baltimore; Montgomery County, Md.; and New York City.
The ERLC aids gospel-focused pregnancy centers through its Psalm 139 Project, which provides funds to purchase and place ultrasound machines in such centers.
The ministry of pro-life pregnancy centers will be among the topics at the third annual Evangelicals for Life (EFL) conference, which is scheduled Jan. 18-20 in Washington, D.C. Anne O’Connor, NIFLA’s vice president of legal affairs, will speak at the conference. The ERLC and Focus on the Family are cosponsors of the conference.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.