WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is wading back into the competing issues of reproductive rights and religious liberty.
The court agreed Monday to decide whether a California law requiring pregnancy centers to post notices about publicly funded abortion and contraception services violates the free-speech rights of religious objectors.
The justices have straddled the issues of abortion and contraception in recent years. Last year, they delivered their most significant ruling on abortion in a generation, striking down restrictions on Texas clinics and doctors that had created roadblocks for thousands of women.
Their recent record on contraception is mixed. The court ruled in 2014 that closely-held companies such as Hobby Lobby did not have to offer forms of birth control to which they objected but could pass the requirement on to their insurers. Last year, the justices told the Obama administration and religious nonprofits who objected even to that level of involvement to work out their differences before federal appeals courts.
But the court also refused to review a Washington state rule requiring pharmacies to fill prescriptions regardless of religious objections, while allowing exemptions for other reasons such as a patient's safety or ability to pay. Three conservative justices dissented.
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A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, considered to be the nation's most liberal appeals court, ruled that the California law did not discriminate against anti-abortion centers.
The law also requires unlicensed, non-medical organizations to inform their clients, and state clearly in advertising, that they are not licensed medical providers.
“This is coerced speech," said Michael Faris, president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the pregnancy centers. "They’re being forced to say something in a way that crowds out their other message.”
The challengers argued that they were targeted by a one-sided law because centers already providing publicly funded abortion and contraception services were exempt.
"This compelled speech requirement drowns out the centers’ pro-life messages and discourages them from speaking through advertisements, because California’s voluminous required statements make ads cost prohibitive," they said in requesting the high court's intervention.
California responded that more than half of the state's 700,000 pregnancies each year are unintended, and women need to know their options.
"The notice that licensed facilities must give under the (law) falls well within the First Amendment’s tolerance for the regulation of the practice-related speech of licensed professionals," the state said in opposing Supreme Court review.