By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether a California law requiring private facilities that counsel pregnant women against abortion to post signs telling clients how to get state-funded abortions and contraceptives violates free speech rights.
The justices will hear an appeal brought by Christian-based non-profit facilities sometimes called "crisis pregnancy centers" of a lower court ruling that upheld the Democratic-backed 2015 California law. The anti-abortion challengers argue that the law, by forcing them to post the information, violates their free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.
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"The state should protect freedom of speech and freedom from coerced speech," said Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian legal group representing the law's challengers.
"Information about abortion is just about everywhere, so the government doesn't need to punish pro-life centers for declining to advertise for the very act they can't promote," he added.
California argued that the Reproductive FACT Act, passed by a Democratic-led legislature and signed by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, is justified by its responsibility to regulate the healthcare industry and is needed to ensure that women know the state has programs providing abortions and birth control.
Democratic California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is defending the law, said the law is intended to ensure women are fully informed about the nature of different facilities.
"Information is power, and all women should have access to the information they need when making personal healthcare decisions," Becerra said.
The crisis pregnancy centers counsel women not to have abortions. These facilities, according to critics, often are located near hospitals and abortion clinics, offer ultrasounds and are staffed by people wearing medical garb. Some are medically licensed facilities, others are not.
The law requires licensed healthcare facilities to post a notice saying that the state has programs for "immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services ... prenatal care, and abortion for eligible women." For non-licensed medical facilities, an additional notice is required stating that the center "has no licensed medical provider who provides or directly supervises the provision of services."
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year upheld the law.
In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a challenge to a similar law in New York City.
The California challengers included the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, an umbrella group for pregnancy crisis centers that said its members include 73 facilities in the state that are medically licensed and 38 that are not.
The other plaintiffs are two centers in San Diego County. The court did not act on three other cases brought by other centers making similar claims.
The Supreme Court found that women have a constitutional right to an abortion in the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade. The court most recently backed abortion rights in 2016 when it struck down a Texas law that imposed strict regulations on clinics that provided abortions.
If the court strikes down California's law on free speech grounds, it could make it harder for Democratic-leaning states to regulate anti-abortion pregnancy centers. But it also could threaten laws passed in Republican-leaning states that impose certain requirements on abortion clinics.
In 2015, the justices left in place a lower court ruling that struck down North Carolina's law requiring physicians to perform an ultrasound, display the sonogram and describe the fetus to women seeking an abortion.
The court has taken a series of cases involving free speech arguments to which its conservative majority is often receptive.
The court on Monday also agreed to hear a conservative group's free speech challenge to a Minnesota law prohibiting voters from wearing apparel adorned with overtly political messages inside polling stations.
Another is a case involving a conservative Christian baker's refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, also brought by the Alliance Defending Freedom.
The court could also resolve a challenge to Republican-drawn electoral districts in Wisconsin on free speech lines.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)