The freedom of pro-life pregnancy centers to determine their message to abortion-minded women has received contrasting verdicts from the federal court system.
The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco refused Oct. 14 to grant an injunction to block a California law that requires pro-life pregnancy centers to notify their clients of the availability of abortion services elsewhere.
Ten days earlier, however, a federal judge in Maryland ruled a Baltimore law violates the free-speech rights of the Center for Pregnancy Concerns, thereby protecting the right of the charity to control what it communicates to the women it serves.
The rulings affect laws that are part of the 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, such pregnancy centers are helping women decide to give birth. The centers also provide such services as medical consultations, baby clothing and diapers, job training, mentoring programs and prenatal and parenting classes.
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore decried the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision, saying it “is awful and should be overturned.”
“This decision effectively requires women and families who choose life to consider abortion instead, at taxpayer expense,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “Once again we have evidence that the abortion lobby is firmly entrenched in our politics.
“My prayer is that this ruling will be reversed, unborn life will be protected rather than exploited, and women who choose life will be treated with dignity, not culture warring,” Moore told Baptist Press.
In the Ninth Circuit Court ruling, a three-judge panel refused to block enforcement of a 2015 California law that 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 each unlicensed center to 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 its opinion, the Ninth Circuit panel said the law does not abridge the First Amendment’s protections for free speech or free exercise of religion. The law “does not discriminate based on viewpoint,” the panel said, and the pregnancy centers have not shown a likelihood of success based on their claims and therefore are not entitled to a preliminary injunction.
“It’s bad enough if the government tells you what you can’t say, but a law that tells you what you must say – under threat of severe punishment – is even more unjust and dangerous,” said Matt Bowman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represents the pregnancy centers.
“Forcing these centers to promote abortion and recite the government’s preferred views is a clear violation of their constitutionally protected First Amendment freedoms.”
The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), which is represented by ADF in the case, has more than 100 pregnancy centers in California.
NIFLA President Thomas Glessner said he is “disappointed but not discouraged.”
In a letter to supporters after the Ninth Circuit ruling. Glessner said he thinks the determination of such cases “and the future of the prolife pregnancy center movement” will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
NARAL Pro-choice California praised the opinion. State director Amy Everitt charged opponents of the law with “trampling on the will of California voters.”
“California women deserve to get accurate information about reproductive health options free of interference, coercion or shame,” Everitt said in a written statement.
The Baltimore ordinance, adopted in 2009, mandates pregnancy centers display signs saying they do not provide abortions or contraceptives. It also requires the signs to indicate the centers do not make referrals for such services.
Federal judge Marvin Garbis ruled the law violates the freedom of speech of the Center for Pregnancy Concerns (CPC) specifically, but he did not invalidate the measure.
The city’s mandate “forces pregnancy centers to begin their conversations with a stark government disclaimer, divorced from the support offered by the Center, and suggesting that abortion is available elsewhere and might be considered a good option by pregnant women – a message that the Center expressly finds morally offensive and would not otherwise provide,” Garbis wrote in his opinion, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Garbis rejected the city’s claim that CPC misleads women about its services, saying evidence shows the center tells potential clients in a variety of ways it does not provide, or refer for, abortions.
“We spend our time giving loving help to women in need,” CPC Executive Director Carol Clews said in written comments via the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “That’s work the City should be supporting, not attacking.
“We are so grateful that we can continue helping women and treating them with love, respect, and dignity.”
The Baltimore law says centers that fail to comply within 10 days of being cited by city inspectors could be fined $150 per day.
In 2014, a federal judge struck down a similar speech restriction in another Maryland jurisdiction. The ruling overturned Montgomery County’s requirement that each pregnancy center post a sign saying there is no “licensed medical professional” on its staff and the county urges women who are, or who may be, pregnant to see a licensed provider.
New York City and Austin, Texas, also passed ordinances requiring pregnancy centers to display signs saying they do not provide abortions or contraceptives or make referrals for the services. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned most of the New York City law. Austin repealed its measure after it was challenged.
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 second annual Evangelicals for Life (EFL) conference, which is scheduled Jan. 26-28 in Washington, D.C. Anne O’Connor, NIFLA’s vice president of legal affairs, and Cindy Hopkins, vice president of center services and client care for the Care Net pregnancy center network, will speak at the conference. EFL is cosponsored by the ERLC and Focus on the Family.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)