Supreme Court ruling may pave way for more faith-based pregnancy centers

The Supreme Court’s ruling Tuesday in favor of anti-abortion clinics in California will make it easier for similar facilities in other states to dissuade women from getting abortions.

The court ruled 5-4 that a California law requiring clinics known as "crisis pregnancy centers" to inform women about how to receive low-cost abortions from the state likely violates the First Amendment.

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Supporters of the law argued that it protects women from misleading and incomplete information offered by the centers. But the centers said the statute violates their First Amendment rights by forcing them to advertise services they oppose on moral grounds.

The ruling dealt a blow to similar laws in states like Florida, Hawaii, Illinois and Maryland.

“I think it will have significant implications in those states that have tried to similarly suppress the work and the speech of the pro-life pregnancy centers," said Kristen Waggoner, senior vice president and general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which argued the case before the Supreme Court. "They will be doomed to fail just like California was.”

Waggoner said her group, which is fighting statutes in those four states, is confident that the Supreme Court's decision “will provide adequate direction to the lower courts to ensure these pregnancy centers can continue doing their good work.”

Crisis pregnancy centers have increased in recent years and now number about 2,700 in the U.S. There are about 800 abortion clinics, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights group, says the crisis facilities are “fake health centers” that masquerade as full-service health clinics. The crisis centers reject that characterization.

Some abortion-rights supporters are worried that Tuesday's ruling will lead to more centers opening.

“The concern is with this decision it’s a green light for more crisis pregnancy centers to open up across the country and for current ones to continue their deceptive practices,” said Justine Wu, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and board member of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals.

“When women walk into a clinic ... they assume they’re getting medically accurate information about their medical options from a licensed providers. These so-called centers are not doing that.”

The case posed questions about the balance between free speech and the rights of patients to have complete information about their options for medical care.

The law applies to any facility in California that provides family planning and pregnancy-related services, such as ultrasounds and pregnancy tests. Under the statute, crisis pregnancy centers that do not provide a full range of reproductive care are required to inform women that the state offers low-cost or free birth control and abortions.

The faith-based centers, which encourage women to choose parenting or adoption, said the law forced them to violate their religious and moral convictions against abortion. The Supreme Court agreed.

Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion of the court, which Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch joined.

“Governments must not be allowed to force persons to express a message contrary to their deepest convictions," Kennedy wrote in a concurring opinion. "Freedom of speech secures freedom of thought and belief. This law imperils those liberties.”

Justice Stephen Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, which Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined.

The court also struck down a provision of the law requiring unlicensed clinics to notify clients in writing that they have no licensed medical provider and that the clinic is not a licensed medical facility.

Anti-abortion groups cheered the court's ruling, saying the overall law unfairly targets the crisis facilities.

“Pregnancy centers exist to serve and support mothers in the courageous decision to give their children life, even under difficult circumstances,” said Chuck Donovan, president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List.

“The Court sent a clear message today that California’s cruel mandate unacceptably infringes on pregnancy centers’ First Amendment liberties — a ruling that will reverberate across the country wherever these remarkable nonprofits have been subjected to state bullying as they strive to carry out their mission of love.”

California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraTop California regulator: Emissions rule change 'blows a hole' in air pollution standards Industry wins big in methane rules rollback Overnight Energy: Watchdog to investigate EPA over Hurricane Harvey | Panel asks GAO to expand probe into sexual harassment in science | States sue over methane rules rollback MORE (D) and supporters of the law said it protects women from clinics that don’t provide women with factual and complete information about their options and from those that mislead women about what services they provide.

“When it comes to making their health decisions, all California women — regardless of their economic background or zip code — deserve access to critical and non-biased information to make their own informed decisions,” Becerra said in a statement after the ruling.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDisclosures suggest rebates and insurers responsible for rising out-of-pocket drug costs Democrats keeping GOP from motivating voters with Trump impeachment threat, analyst says Celebrities, lawmakers wear black to support Kavanaugh’s accuser MORE (D-Calif.) called the court's decision “a grave step backwards” in the fight to advance the rights of women.

Updated at 6:13 p.m.