A California pastor who runs a mobile “pregnancy clinic” has filed the latest legal challenge to a consumer protection law that requires a public notice of reproductive health options for women.
In a lawsuit filed November 25 in Riverside County Superior Court, Scott Scharpen, associate pastor at Rock Valley Christian Church in Murietta, claims the law violates his constitutional right to free exercise and freedom of speech. Scharpen founded a ministry called Go Mobile for Life, which operates a licensed mobile crisis pregnancy center (CPC) that provides free ultrasounds to women.
“I will not post that notice in our clinic,” Scharpen said in a statement on the lawsuit. “I would rather close the clinic than post that notice. Now, by law, we are required to provide referral information to a woman for services that we find morally and ethically objectionable, namely abortion.”
CPCs have been found to mislead and misinform women seeking abortion care. A California undercover investigation found that CPCs, generally staffed by anti-choice activists hoping to dissuade women from accessing abortion care, regularly lie to women about their pregnancies and options. Other investigations found that CPCs convince women to remain pregnant with false promises of financial aid and housing.
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Set to go into effect January 1, the California Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency (FACT) Act requires all clinics, including CPCs, to post the following written notice about access to birth control and abortion services:
California has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services (including all FDA-approved methods of contraception), prenatal care, and abortion for eligible women. To determine whether you qualify, contact the county social services office at [insert the telephone number].
Unlicensed centers also must post a public notice saying as much:
This facility is not licensed as a medical facility by the State of California and has no licensed medical provider who provides or directly supervises the provision of services.
The law will regulate the nearly 350 CPCs that operate in the Golden State, according to a directory by the CPC umbrella group Heartbeat International. Clinics that fail to comply will face civil penalties up to $1,000.
Operators of religiously backed CPCs have described the law as a “bully bill” that infringes on constitutional guarantees.
“The government has no right to compel individuals or corporations to adopt the government’s view on abortion and has no right to compel them to advertise and promote abortions,” Robert Tyler, the attorney for Scharpen and general counsel for Advocates for Faith & Freedom, said in a statement. He said the California Constitution affords greater speech protections than the First Amendment, which is why the complaint was not filed in federal court.
Rachel Huennekens, deputy press secretary for state Attorney General Kamala Harris, told Rewire in an email, “We will vigorously defend the state law in court.”
Hearings are set this month on motions for a temporary injunction.
The pastor’s suit is at least the third since Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed the FACT Act into law October 9. Days later, two church-affiliated clinics sued the attorney general to bar enforcement of the law, claiming it violates their constitutional rights to religious liberty and free speech.
The legislation, AB 775, was passed by the state’s Democratic-led legislature.
“It’s hard to understand how those who claim to care about women find it so threatening to inform them about accessing affordable health care,” Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Inglewood), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, told the Sacramento Bee.
Backers of the bill cited a recent undercover report by NARAL Pro-Choice California that found CPCs routinely lie about the physical and psychological risks of ending a pregnancy and delay a patient’s decision until abortion is no longer an option.
The NARAL report described a CPC employee who mistook an investigator’s intrauterine device for a fetus during an ultrasound, telling the investigator that it was “her baby.” CPC employees told undercover investigators that going through with an induced abortion is unnecessary, because the chance of a spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage, is 30 to 50 percent.
The National Library of Medicine puts the miscarriage rate among women who know they are pregnant at 15 to 20 percent.
Sally Greenwald, an obstetrics and gynecology resident in San Francisco who has treated former CPC patients, recently told Rewire that her patients have included a pregnant diabetic woman whose blood sugar levels had spiked under a CPC’s care. Such mismanagement, she said, puts the developing fetus at risk for organ and spinal cord abnormalities, neonatal seizures after delivery, and other medical issues.