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Supreme Court takes up case on free speech and abortion

No one can be compelled "to act as a ventriloquist's dummy for a government-dictated message," lawyer Jay Sekulow says.

WASHINGTON — The issue of abortion returns to the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday in a battle over a California law requiring notices for women about the availability of services to terminate a pregnancy.

A religious group representing church-run crisis pregnancy centers says the requirement violates the First Amendment's guarantee of free expression by forcing them to convey a message they strongly oppose.

They're challenging California's Reproductive FACT Act. It requires licensed medical centers to post a notice advising women about state-funded programs that provide family planning services including contraceptives and abortion.

Non-medical facilities are required to say in a notice that they are not licensed and cannot provide medical services.

The centers — around 300 in the state — say their purpose is to support childbirth by encouraging women to opt for parenting or adoption. They provide advice, vitamins, diapers, and baby clothes. Some offer ultrasound images. Forcing them to post the notices, they argue, amounts to government-compelled speech.

"The very reason they exist is to encourage and support women in choosing to give birth," says David Cortman of Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal advocacy group representing the church-affiliated centers.

Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, who is also a lawyer for President Donald Trump, says in a friend of the court brief that no one can be compelled "to act as a ventriloquist's dummy for a government-dictated message."

In defending the law, the state says about half of California's 700,000 pregnancies a year are unintended and that many women with low incomes aren't aware of publicly funded health care options.

The law is designed, says California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, "to reach an audience in need of information at a critical moment," given that "late abortions may be less safe, less desirable, and more burdensome to obtain."

State legislators who pushed for the law said some pregnancy centers give misleading information about the risks of abortion, pretend to be medical clinics, or intimidate their clients.

Lower courts have been divided about whether such notice requirements violate free speech. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the California law, but similar requirements in other states and cities have been declared unconstitutional.

The courts have, however, upheld laws in 29 states that require doctors to provide various kinds of information to patients before performing abortions. The states say the laws are important to obtain a woman's informed consent. But women's groups say the information about the risks is often inaccurate.

The court will issue its decision by late June.