2018 is already shaping up to be a significant one at the Supreme Court, as the much-anticipated freedom of speech and religion case known as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission will be decided before the end of June. However, another huge First Amendment case is following close behind, also with major implications for free speech, the rights of conscience, and the issue of government coercion when it comes to dissenting voices on moral issues. Here is what you need to know about NIFLA v. Becerra, which will also be decided by the end of June.
What’s the case about?
In early 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in an appeal from a decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the constitutionality of the California Reproductive FACT Act. That law requires pro-life pregnancy resource centers in the state to inform their female clients of the availability of, and contact information for, low-cost and free abortion services. Those clients are the very women these centers are trying to dissuade from abortion, and the centers object to being compelled to speak the state’s message.
Who are the parties?
“NIFLA” stands for National Institute of Family and Life Advocates. It is a national non-profit organization comprised of 1430 pro-life pregnancy resource centers across the country (110 in California that are subject to the FACT Act). These centers provide licensed medical services such as ultrasounds and urine pregnancy testing, and/or unlicensed non-medical services such as furnishing diapers and maternity clothing, counseling and support groups to women in unplanned pregnancies. “Becerra” is Xavier Becerra, the current California Attorney General, the state’s chief law enforcement officer.
What are the legal questions?
The constitutional issue at stake is, can California pass a law compelling pro-life pregnancy resource centers to promote abortion, or does that violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech? Past decisions of the Supreme Court interpret the First Amendment as prohibiting government from “compelling” objectionable speech unless it is the least restrictive way to further a very important government purpose. This standard puts a high bar in favor of free speech that government laws rarely clear.
Why is this case important?
If government can force mission-based organizations to promote actions at odds with its beliefs, where does it end? Whenever government attempts to compel the speech of a person or organization so as to provide a government message of support on one side of an issue of great public importance, it crosses the line set in the First Amendment that neither Congress nor the states may pass a law “…abridging the freedom of speech…” At a time in our history when radical secularism within government is aggressively taking stands on cultural issues that conflict with biblical positions, Christians should pray and support efforts to defend our First Amendment freedoms and the right to speak truth in a culture that needs to hear it.