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U.S. appeals court upholds law that requires religious clinics to inform women of abortion options

U.S. appeals court upholds law that requires religious clinics to inform women of abortion options
Gov. Jerry Brown signed the measure into law last year. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

A federal appeals court Friday unanimously upheld the constitutionality of a new California law that requires religiously affiliated pregnancy clinics to inform women about abortion options.

The law, which took effect in January, says licensed clinics must disseminate information to women about government programs that provide free or low-cost services for family planning, abortions and prenatal care.

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About 200 crisis pregnancy centers in California are affiliated with religions that oppose abortion. Three nonprofit groups that run these clinics sued to block the law, contending it violated their rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, contending that the law did not discriminate against or infringe upon anyone's 1st Amendment rights.

"California has a substantial interest in the health of its citizens, including ensuring that its citizens have access to and adequate information about constitutionally protected medical services like abortion," Judge Dorothy W. Nelson, a Jimmy Carter appointee, wrote for the court.

The law passed after the Legislature found that thousands of low income women in California were  unaware of government programs that offer contraception, abortions and prenatal care, the court noted.

The law also contained findings that religiously affiliated clinics often misled women about their options and even intimidated them into making ill-informed decisions.

The required notice that clinics must provide "informs the reader only of the existence of publicly-funded family-planning services," the court said. "It does not contain any more speech than necessary, nor does it encourage, suggest, or imply that women should use those state-funded services."

The pregnancy centers, which include both medical clinics and places where only counseling is done, are intended to guide pregnant women away from having abortions.

The 9th Circuit also found constitutional a portion of the law that requires the unlicensed counseling centers to inform patients they lack state licenses.

Operators who fail to provide the notices are subject to a $500 fine for the first failure and $1,000 fines for subsequent violations. The law can be enforced at the county or state level.

Matthew Bowman, an  attorney who represented the clinics in the case, said the ruling conflicted with decisions by courts elsewhere and might be appealed.

The new law requires clinics and nonmedical counseling centers to provide the notices in 12 or 13 languages in some counties and to include them in advertisements, said Bowman, senior counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, which opposes abortion and advocates for religious liberties.

"No one should have to choose between offering women free help or having to violate our beliefs and recommend the destruction of a human life — and then provide directions on how to get it done for free," Bowman said.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the measure into law last year, and Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris' office defended it.

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