S37 imposes “fear of unjust government punishment” on faith-based pregnancy centers, federal suit says
Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates and two pregnancy care centers challenging Vermont state officials for unconstitutionally restricting the centers’ speech and provision of services, an ADF statement released Tuesday said.
In May, Gov. Phil Scott signed SB 37 into law, impeding the ability of pro-life pregnancy centers to continue providing help and support to Vermont women and families. The law censors the centers’ ability to advertise their services. It also precludes the ability of centers to offer even non-medical services, information, and counseling unless provided by a licensed health care provider.
“Women who become unexpectedly pregnant should be empowered with life-affirming options, emotional support, and practical resources,” said ADF Legal Counsel Julia Payne. “Vermont’s law, however, does the opposite—it impedes women’s ability to receive critical services during a difficult time in their lives and suppresses the free-speech rights of faith-based pregnancy centers. Pregnancy centers should be free to serve women and offer the support they need without fear of unjust government punishment.”
NIFLA is a religious nonprofit that provides pro-life pregnancy center members with legal resources and counsel, with the aim of developing a network of life-affirming ministries in every community across the nation. NIFLA has six member facilities in Vermont, including Aspire Now and Branches Pregnancy Resource Center, two faith-based pregnancy centers that have joined the lawsuit.
The lawsuit explains that the Vermont law specifically targets pro-life pregnancy centers as “limited services” providers because they do not refer or perform abortions. Under the law, the state attorney general has the authority to fine pregnancy centers up to $10,000 if she believes its life-affirming messages are misleading.
The law applies only to pro-life pregnancy centers—an abortion clinic that provides identical information would not be subject to the law. Also, the law does not define “misleading,” so it is left up to the discretion of the attorney general.
Further, Vermont’s law precludes the ability of centers to offer even non-medical services, information, and counseling unless provided by a licensed health care provider. This restriction harms pregnancy centers by preventing their non-medical staff and volunteers from providing clients with any information related to pregnancy and counseling clients about their options. It also prevents non-medical pregnancy centers, like Branches, from providing women with information or counseling about pregnancy without hiring medical staff.
ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Clark, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont.
Michael Tierney is serving as local counsel on behalf of NIFLA and the pregnancy care centers.