Capitol Alert

Sacramento judge rules crisis pregnancy centers must post abortion notice

The website for the Crisis Pregnancy Center of Northern California, one of three plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The website for the Crisis Pregnancy Center of Northern California, one of three plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Crisis pregnancy centers in California are not having much luck so far stopping a new law that they argue violates their free speech rights by forcing them to promote abortion.

A federal judge in Sacramento on Monday night upheld Assembly Bill 775, which requires any licensed facility providing pregnancy-related services to post a sign in its waiting area alerting visitors to California’s free and low-cost public programs for family planning, prenatal care and abortion. This follows a similar ruling in another lawsuit last week by a federal judge in Oakland.

The law is aimed at crisis pregnancy centers, faith-based organizations that cropped up as alternatives to abortion providers and counsel women to carry their pregnancies to term. Supporters of AB 775 – including its authors, Democratic Assembly members David Chiu of San Francisco and Autumn Burke of Marina Del Rey – argue that they pose a threat to public health by providing incomplete medical information early in women’s pregnancies.

Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based conservative legal organization, brought the suit on behalf of three clinics and was seeking an injunction before the law goes into effect on Jan. 1.

In her ruling Monday night, District Judge Kimberly Mueller acknowledged that the required notice is compelled speech, but she said it merely “provides truthful, non-misleading information to the clinics’ clients during their appointments” and “does not otherwise restrict speech.” She added that the clinics remain free to advocate their religious beliefs and “even to criticize the (law) during appointments with their clients.”

“California has a special interest in protecting and regulating trades that closely concern public health,” she wrote. “Though the public interest favors upholding the First Amendment, the public interest also favors ensuring California women are fully informed as to their reproductive health care options.”

Matthew McReynolds, senior staff attorney at Pacific Justice Institute, said they would decide in the next few days whether to file an appeal. He said the balance Mueller gave to the state’s interest in her ruling was “pretty out of whack.”

“We think that’s a whole new and unprecedented take on access,” he said.

Attorney General Kamala Harris, who sponsored AB 775, was named as the defendant in the lawsuit. In a statement, a spokeswoman for her office said, “We are pleased by the rulings issued in these two lawsuits and will continue to defend the Reproductive FACT Act to ensure women are able to make informed decisions about their health.”

Two more lawsuits against AB 775 are still pending: one in Riverside that will be heard Wednesday and another in San Diego scheduled for January.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff