Archbishop William E. Lori praised a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court that found a California law to be in violation of the First Amendment rights of crisis pregnancy centers.
In its June 26 decision in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, the court found that the law changes the content of the clinic’s speech “by compelling petitioners to speak a particular message,” and that the law went further than being a mere “regulation of professional conduct that incidentally burdens speech.”
The state law is the Reproductive FACT Act, which says pregnancy centers must post notices in their facilities about where low-cost abortion services are available and also must disclose if they have medical personnel on staff.
“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court is a welcome victory for our precious American ideals of free speech and religious liberty and an affirmation of the rights of all Americans to act and speak in accordance with their religious beliefs,” Archbishop Lori said. “Today’s ruling offers optimism for the final defeat of a similarly onerous regulation in Baltimore City that targets pro-life pregnancy centers and contradicts the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
The Baltimore City Council passed an ordinance on a 12-3 vote in 2009 that would have forced pro-life pregnancy centers in the city to post signs stating they do not provide or refer for abortions or contraceptives. Then-Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien strongly opposed the measure, arguing that it violated the right to free speech. He also contended that the law unfairly targeted pro-life pregnancy centers, while failing to require abortion providers to post similar signs indicating what services they don’t provide.
Archbishop Lori continued a battle against the law as it faced multiple court challenges over the last several years. In a 3-0 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down the Baltimore ordinance Jan. 5, upholding a lower federal court’s ruling.
The Baltimore law, which would have imposed a $150 daily fine on pregnancy centers that fail to post the mandated signs, was the first of its kind in the nation. It affected the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, a pro-life, Baltimore-based outreach that provides free services to 1,200 women annually. Some of its services have been offered in facilities owned by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
During the oral arguments on the California case March 20, some of the justices expressed concerns that the California law might be about specifically targeting crisis pregnancy centers instead of providing information about abortion, and the decision mentions that, if the goal of the law were merely providing information about abortion to the public, that goal could be accomplished in more effective ways that do not require speakers to deliver unwanted speech.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, praised the high court’s California ruling as “an important victory for the free speech rights of pro-life organizations.”
“The Supreme Court today has affirmed that the First Amendment protects the right of all organizations to choose for themselves not only what to say, but what not to say,” he said in a statement.
“This includes allowing pro-life pregnancy care centers to continue providing life-affirming support to both mother and child without being forced by governments to provide free advertising for the violent act of abortion in direct violation of the center’s pro-life convictions,” he said.
The USCCB and several other faith-based groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court supporting the pro-life pregnancy centers in the California case.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, who is co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, said in a statement that “pregnancy centers want no part of a law requiring them to tell a woman where to go to kill her child. Thankfully, today the Supreme Court recognized their First Amendment right to free speech — and to refrain from speaking.”
“Crisis pregnancy centers like NIFLA serve women and children according to their religious mission, and California should respect that,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket, which is a nonprofit religious liberty law firm. “This ruling proves that when it comes to important issues, the government doesn’t get to tell people what to believe, and it also doesn’t get to tell people what to say about it.”
Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion of the court, and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch. Kennedy filed a concurring opinion which Roberts, Alito and Gorsuch joined. Justice Stephen Breyer filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Catholic News Service contributed to this story.