U.S. Supreme Court to hear California forced-speech case

Justices agree to decide whether law compelling crisis pregnancy centers to post notices referring patients for abortions violates First Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

The Supreme Court said Monday it will hear an anti-abortion group’s free-speech challenge to a California law that requires “crisis pregnancy centers” to notify patients that the state offers subsidies for contraception and abortion.

The challengers say the disclosure law violates the 1st Amendment because it forces the faith-based pregnancy centers to send a message that conflicts with their aim of encouraging childbirth, not abortion.

It will be the second major case this term in which a conservative, religious-rights plaintiff is challenging a liberal state law on free-speech grounds — and both came from the same lawyers. The Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom sued on behalf of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple and was charged with violating the state’s civil rights law. The justices are due to hear his appeal on Dec. 5.

ADF lawyers also challenged the California disclosure law on behalf of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, which describes itself as “a faith-based, Christian ministry that seeks to glorify God by proclaiming the sanctity of human life, both born and unborn.” The group represents 110 pregnancy centers in California, and it contends the disclosure provisions amount to unconstitutional “compelled speech.”

The key issue, said Michael Farris, ADF’s president, is whether “California can put its thumb on one side” of the scale and require a faith-based center “to promote a pro-abortion message.”

The law, known as the Reproductive FACT Act, says these centers must disclose whether they have a medical license and have medical professionals available. They must also post a notice in the waiting room 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, pre-natal care and abortion.” The notice includes a phone number for a county social services office.

Several centers sued to block the disclosure rule, but lost before three federal district judges. Last year, the 9th Circuit Court upheld the law in a 3-0 decision. Judge Dorothy Nelson said the disclosure provision does not “encourage, suggest or imply” that a woman should seek an abortion. It is “closely drawn to achieve California’s interest in safeguarding public health and fully informing Californians of the existence of publicly funded medical services,” she said.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the challengers pointed out that the 2nd Circuit Court had struck down a similar provision in a New York City ordinance.

The court’s decision to hear the case may reflect the impact of new Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. He had shown a strong interest in religious liberty claims as an appeals court judge. A few weeks after he arrived, the high court announced it would hear the case of the Colorado baker. It takes the vote of four justices to hear an appeal, and five to have a majority. That suggests the outcome in the California case, like the one from Colorado, will turn on the vote of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Full story at The LA Times.

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