A skeptical Supreme Court took aim at a California law that forces a Christian group that operates counseling centers for women in crisis to provide the women information about medical procedures that violate the group’s beliefs.
The case is National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra.
During oral arguments Tuesday, both conservative and liberal justices raised questions about the California law, which took effect in 2016. Centers that are licensed by the state must tell clients about the availability – at little or no cost to the patient – of these procedures they find objectionable. Centers that are unlicensed also must post a sign that says so.
The centers say they are being singled out and forced to deliver a message with which they disagree. California says the law is needed to let poor women know all their options.
At different points in the arguments, liberal Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor said they were troubled by aspects of the California law.
Kagan said it seemed that the state had “gerrymandered” the law, a term usually used in the context of redistricting, to target these centers. Sotomayor said there was at least one instance dealing with unlicensed centers that seemed “burdensome and wrong.”
Justice Samuel Alito, a likely vote for the centers, said the state’s criteria about which centers are covered by the law seemed to address only these clinics that oppose the objectionable procedures.
“When you put all this together, you get a very suspicious pattern,” Alito said.
Joshua Klein, California’s deputy solicitor general, said the state is targeting poor expectant women, not the centers. The idea is to let a woman who visits a crisis center know that “her financial circumstance does not make her unable to access alternative and supplemental care.”
The court has previously upheld requirements that doctors in clinics that provide these procedures must tell patients about alternatives to the procedures.
California’s law was challenged by the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, a Christian organization with ties to 1,500 centers nationwide and 140 in California.
Several Jewish and Christian organizations filed amicus (friend-of-the-court) briefs supporting the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates.
In remarks following the oral argument Tuesday, Michael Farris, attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom who is representing National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, said, “A government that tells you what you can’t say is dangerous, but a government that tells you what you must say—under threat of severe punishment—is alarming.”
“When the government decides what people should and should not say, other freedoms are sure to disappear soon after,” said Farris. “The First Amendment does not allow the government to force you to speak its message. That’s especially true when you are pursuing a religious mission of simply providing resources and support to women free of charge.
“California has the heavy burden of justifying its law under the Constitution, or … the law must be struck down to give freedom back to the people. After arguments this morning, I am optimistic the justices will find that the state has not carried this burden and will continue their long tradition of giving speech the highest level of protection it deserves.”