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California Barred From Enforcing Abortion-Information Law on Religious Clinics

A Southern California judge found this week that a state law requiring anti-abortion pregnancy clinics to include information about both prenatal care services and abortion infringes their free speech.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) – A Southern California judge found this week that a state law requiring anti-abortion pregnancy clinics to include information about both prenatal care services and abortion infringes their free speech.

The religious nonprofit Scharpen Foundation, which operates a mobile clinic out of a motor home in Riverside County and in the city of Temecula, sued the state of California in 2015 over a requirement to comply with the Reproductive FACT Act. The Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency Act requires licensed facilities to provide information about the state’s prenatal care, family planning and abortion services for eligible women.

On Monday, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Gloria Trask ruled that the FACT Act requirements violate the free speech of clinics like Scharpen, which encourages pregnant clients to choose options that don’t involve abortion.

Scott Scharpen, founder of the Go Mobile For Life clinic, said his organization is overjoyed with Trask’s ruling, which permanently bars the state, Riverside County and the city of Temecula from enforcing any of the FACT Act requirements.

“We are just thrilled to essentially hear the courts say things that we believe to be true,” Scharpen said in an interview.

The clinic faced civil penalties for refusing to post the required notices, which Scharpen said go against their religious beliefs as a Christian group that seeks to “advance the kingdom of God and Jesus Christ.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement he will appeal the ruling.

“Information is power, and all women should have access to the information they need when making personal healthcare decisions,” Becerra said.

Scharpen said he agrees women should have all the information they need, but his staff will provide that on their terms.

“We do talk to women about abortion,” Scharpen said. “It is a medical procedure and abortions are a legal right in this country. But we provide all the facts about what that means.”

The Scharpen Foundation is represented by the Riverside County-based law firm of Tyler and Bursch.

While the foundation sued claiming the FACT Act violates its free speech, freedom of assembly and free exercise of religion, Trask tossed the latter two challenges but found a free-speech violation after a one-day trial in October.

“There is no question that the FACT Act compels speech and the content of that speech,” Trask wrote. The issue, she said, is the required notice included a telephone number from which callers would receive information about all available services – including prenatal care and abortion.

“This speech is not merely the transmittal of neutral information, such as the calorie count of a food product,” Trask wrote.

“The specific language of the required signing is misleading, in that it can leave the reader with the belief that the referral is being made by the clinic in which it is posted,” she continued. “In Scharpen’s case that would be inaccurate, profoundly inaccurate.”

As a moral and philosophical question, the dispute is essentially how we define when human life begins, Trask said, adding the argument touches several areas including individual liberty, judicial power, feminism, federalism and now free speech.

“The issue of abortion is undoubtedly political in nature,” she wrote.

The Go Mobile For Life Clinic was licensed in 2014 and began operating later that year, providing clients with pregnancy tests and limited ultrasounds. According to its website, the Scharpen Foundation’s goal is to educate women to “choose life, choose to parent, choose an adoption plan.”

Becerra said his office “will do everything necessary to protect women’s health care rights.”

A similar case in San Diego was advanced by a federal judge, who refused – after a trip to the Ninth Circuit – to block enforcement of the law without a trial. The clinics there have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether it will take up the case.

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