NRL News

Supreme Court recognizes government cannot compel speech that violates one’s deeply held beliefs

by | Jun 29, 2018

By Chelsy Gomez

The Supreme Court recently issued its ruling in NIFLA v. Becerra holding that pro-life pregnancy centers are likely to succeed in their challenge to a California law that forced them to advertise and refer for abortion. The Court held that the centers were entitled to a preliminary injunction halting the law’s enforcement.

The so-called “Reproductive FACT Act” required medically-licensed pregnancy support centers to provide information to clients about publicly funded abortion, in direct opposition to their mission and purpose. The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), an advocacy group for pregnancy resource centers, challenged the law, asserting that it violated the centers’ First Amendment right to free speech. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court agreed.

The Court found that the government was wrong to compel pro-life groups and individuals to express a message that conflicts with their beliefs. To maintain a truly free society, the government cannot compel speech that violates a person’s or organization’s convictions, especially on controversial topics like abortion.

In a statement, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities noted that this was “an important victory for the free speech rights of pro-life organizations.” He celebrated that the Court’s vote allows “pro-life pregnancy care centers to continue providing life-affirming support to both mother and child without being forced by governments to provide free advertising for the violent act of abortion in direct violation of the center’s pro-life convictions.”

The Supreme Court has consistently held that government hostility toward people of faith is unconstitutional and has no place in our society. As Justice Thomas wrote in the Court opinion, the California law “targets speakers, not speech, and imposes an unduly burdensome disclosure requirement that will chill their protected speech.”

Pregnancy care centers provide free practical resources, information, and emotional support to the women who walk through their doors. Unjust laws like the California “FACT Act” unfairly burden those who wish to serve their communities, threatening the welfare of thousands of women, children and families who depend on the care and resources provided by these centers.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court recognized that government cannot compel speech that violates one’s deeply held beliefs. Justice Kennedy wrote in his concurring opinion, “This law is a paradigmatic example of the serious threat presented when government seeks to impose its own message in the place of individual speech, thought, and expression.”

Given that governments are increasingly trying to coerce institutions of faith to endorse secular ideas that directly oppose their religious beliefs, it is fitting that the Court’s ruling was announced during Religious Freedom Week–a time in which the bishops have asked the Church to pray and act for the protection of religious liberty in the United States and abroad. The Court’s decision was most welcome and reinvigorates our united efforts for this purpose.

The USCCB’s amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of NIFLA highlighted that this case was not principally about abortion, but rather about the First Amendment right of all religious organizations to choose for themselves not only what to say, but “what not to say.” As we look forward to the celebration of Independence Day on July 4, we thank our Lord for a country whose Constitution upholds the right to free speech and exercise of religion and pray for the courage to always defend that right when it is challenged.

Editor’s note. Chelsy Gomez is Program Associate for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.