Lawsuit Filed to Overturn Law Forcing Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers to Promote Abortion

On October 9, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 775, (Chiu, D-San Francisco), the so-called Reproductive FACT (Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency) Act.  The legislation forces faith-based, pro-life pregnancy resource centers that offer alternatives to abortion, to advertise access to “immediate free or low-cost” abortion.  The bill was co-sponsored by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice California and others. 

Immediately afterward, on October 13, the National Institute for Family and Life Advocates, which represents pregnancy resource centers throughout the nation, including 115 members in California, filed a law suit in federal district court in San Diego charging that the law is an unconstitutional violation of their First Amendment rights by imposing “government compelled speech.”  Plaintiffs are also seeking an injunction to stop the law from going into effect, currently scheduled for January 1, 2016.

“This Act is an outrageous unconstitutional violation of the rights of free speech and freedom of religion for our California members,” Thomas Glessner, J.D., president of NIFLA, said in a statement.

“Forcing pro-life centers to promote abortion and recite the government’s messages is a clear violation of their constitutionally protected First Amendment freedoms,” said Matt Bowman, Senior Legal Counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed the case on behalf of NIFLA.  Bowman has defeated similar laws in several other states, including New York, Texas and Maryland.

California is now the only state in the nation with what has been termed the “Bully Law.”

Pregnancy resource centers offer services such as pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, prenatal care, referrals to health care services and information on adoption.  They also often offer resources such as clothing, baby supplies and other assistance to help women who choose to keep their child.  Seventy-seven of NIFLA’s California members provide licensed medical services, while the others provide only non-medical services.

AB 775 forces licensed covered facilities to disseminate to clients the following message:  “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.” It requires the notice to include the telephone number of the local county social services office so women can determine if they qualify.

According to Marie Leatherby, Executive Director of the Sacramento Life Center, 75 percent of the calls made to the county social services office required in the notice “go directly to Planned Parenthood,” the nation’s largest abortion provider.

The pregnancy center must post the notice in one of three ways:  (1) A public notice in a “conspicuous place,” “at least 8.5 inches by 11 inches and written in no less than 22-point type.” (2)  A printed notice “in no less than 14-point type.”  (3) A digital notice “that can be read at the time of check-in or arrival, in the same point type as other digital disclosures.”  A printed notice is required for “all clients who cannot or do not wish to receive the information in a digital format.”

Unlicensed pregnancy centers are also required to advertise to clients on site “and in any print and digital advertising materials including Internet Web sites,” that, “This facility 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.”  The onsite notice for unlicensed facilities “shall be a sign at least 8.5 inches by 11 inches and written in no less than 48-point type, and shall be posted conspicuously in the entrance of the facility and at least one additional area where clients wait to receive services.”

This notice is required even though these facilities are not offering medical services, so there is no need for such a statement.

Covered facilities that fail to comply with the notice requirements are liable for a fine of $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for each subsequent offense.

NIFLA’s suit also charges that the law violates the free speech clause of the California Constitution, Art. I, Sec. 2(a).  That section states that “[e]very person may freely speak, write and publish his or her sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of this right.  A law may not restrain or abridge liberty of speech or press.”

In addition, the suit charges that the law “unconstitutionally discriminates” against the plaintiffs “based on their viewpoint,” as it exempts facilities that provide certain family planning or Medi-Cal services.

A double standard is also evident in that pro-life pregnancy centers must advertise availability of free abortions, but abortion providers are not required to inform women about alternatives to abortion, such as homes for pregnant mothers and resources to help them.

What’s more, access to information on obtaining an abortion in California is immediately available to women with a quick Google search.  The state can conduct an advertising campaign separately if it wants further promotion of abortion without stifling the free speech of organizations that offer another option.

An additional lawsuit against the law was filed by the Pacific Justice Institute on October 12 in federal courts in southern and northern California on behalf of the pregnancy centers.   PJI president Brad Dacus stated:  “Forcing a religious pro-life charity to proclaim a pro-abortion declaration is on its face an egregious violation of both the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

The Sacramento Life Center’s Leatherby said, “We’ve been attacked by NARAL Pro-Choice for years.” “It’s hard to fight their money and power.”  But she is confident that the courts will consider this again, as in other states where the law was struck down, “as a freedom of speech issue.”

According to Anne O’Connor, vice-president of NIFLA, if California’s law “is not successfully challenged then states, prompted by Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry, will pass similar legislation forcing pro-life pregnancy centers to become abortion referral agencies.”

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