In a major victory for free speech, Riverside County Superior Court Justice Gloria C. Trask ruled late Monday that California must not force pro-life pregnancy medical clinics to promote abortions to their clients.
California had passed the so-called “Reproductive FACT Act” in 2015, which mandated that pro-life centers post signage and inform their clients about the state’s taxpayer-funded abortions and birth control.
Monday’s ruling placed a permanent injunction on the law. It would have applied to over 200 privately funded pregnancy centers, which offer free alternatives to abortion.
Scott Scharpen, the head administrator of “Go Mobile For Life,” a mobile ultrasound unit that serves women in Riverside County, praised the ruling.
“We are thrilled with Judge Trask’s ruling, which is a huge victory for free speech,” Scharpen said.
“The whole notion of being compelled to share information with our patients about abortion availability, which is contrary to our mission and purpose, is fundamentally wrong. Lives will be saved because of this ruling.”
Pushed through on a purely party-line vote in 2015, the law has only been enforced in one jurisdiction—the city of Los Angeles—but has served as a template for other Democrat-controlled states, including Hawaii and Connecticut, to crack down on pro-life pregnancy centers that offer free services to expectant mothers.
California’s ‘Freedom of Mind’ Protection
Since the bill’s inception, pro-life advocates have argued that it tramples on the constitutionally protected rights of free speech and free religious expression.
Prior to Monday, those arguments had fallen on deaf ears. In October 2016, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals—the most frequently reversed court in the U.S.—upheld the state law, dismissing plaintiffs’ concerns that it violates their deeply held religious beliefs and freedom of speech.
Pregnancy centers in the state have since appealed to the Supreme Court, which has yet to indicate whether or not to consider the case.
As pro-lifers await action from the Supreme Court, Scharpen and his legal team made their case before Trask’s court on the basis that the law runs aground of California’s 1849 Declaration of Rights, which guarantees the “individual freedom of mind.”
In her ruling Monday, Trask agreed that the Reproductive FACT Act violates free speech protections, noting that “compelled speech of a political or cultural nature is not the tool of a free government.”
Elsewhere in her decision, Trask wrote that if the state’s primary goal is to raise awareness as to the availability of its programs, it has several ways to do so, including public service announcements and even purchasing billboard space, even “directly in front of Scharpen Foundation’s clinic.”
None of those options involve running roughshod over the deeply held religious convictions held by Scharpen—who also serves as a pastor—who would have been forced to speak a government message that would have left “patients with the belief they were referred to an abortion provider by that clinic,” as Trask explained.
“Compelled speech must be subject to reasonable limitation,” Trask wrote. “This statute compels the clinic to speak words with which it profoundly disagrees when the state has numerous alternative methods of publishing its message. In this case, however virtuous the state’s ends, they do not justify its means.”
Next Steps in the Fight
While California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, will likely challenge this ruling, it remains to be seen how the decision will affect pregnancy centers’ pending appeal to the Supreme Court.
Danielle White, legal counsel for Heartbeat International—a network of pregnancy help organizations, including Scharpen’s and close to 100 more in California—said the state-level ruling will likely put the pending Supreme Court challenge into a holding pattern while Becerra fights the injunction.
Similar laws forcing pregnancy centers to post signage that denigrate their own services have been struck down in New York City and Baltimore, as well as in Austin, Texas, and Montgomery County, Maryland. Montgomery County was eventually ordered to pay pregnancy centers $330,000 in attorney’s fees.
A comparable pattern played out in Illinois this July, when a judge placed a statewide preliminary injunction on a 2016 law that would have forced medical professionals—including pro-life doctors, nurses, and pregnancy center personnel—to refer patients to abortion businesses.
“This is such an encouraging win for free speech and for the pro-life community,” White said. “We’re praying this will be a major turning point to allow clinics like Go Mobile For Life to keep their attention on reaching women who desperately need help..”
Nada Higuera, who argued the case before Trask, understands from personal experience why it’s so important to allow pro-life people to reach women facing unexpected pregnancies.
As a pregnant teen, she knew where she could go for an abortion, but not where she could go for life-affirming help.
“As a young female and defender of speech, I am thrilled to know that our work is not in vain,” Higuera said. “I’ve regrettably had an abortion. And I’ve just recently experienced the incomparable joy of having a baby.
“I wish I would have had the opportunity to visit a pro-life clinic when I was just 16 years old and contemplating an abortion.”