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Citing a violation of the First Amendment, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative advocacy group, has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a new Connecticut law designed to prevent deceptive advertising at crisis pregnancy centers.
The law, passed this spring, is intended to stop centers from distributing misleading information about abortion and other services and from inaccurately marketing themselves as medical facilities. Advocates described the legislation as a “truth-in-advertising bill,” while opponents have called it unnecessary and unfair.
The ADF filed suit in federal court Tuesday on behalf of a New London crisis pregnancy center called Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center of Southeastern Connecticut. The suit claims that Connecticut’s new law “bans Care Net from communicating freely with the individuals it serves and with those it wishes to serve, unless Care Net agrees to provide abortions, dispense abortifacient drugs, or offer referrals for abortions or abortifacient drugs.”
The group is suing Attorney General William Tong and seeks a court-order to block the law and a declaration that it violates free speech, freedom of religion, due process and equal protection rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
“The First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause protects Care Net’s rights to speak, to publish speech, to be free from content and viewpoint discrimination to be free from unconstitutional conditions, to be free from vague laws allowing unbridled discretion, to be free from overbroad laws, to not speak, and to not publish speech,’' the lawsuit states. “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects Care Net’s rights to operate, publish, speak, and not speak, in accordance with its religious beliefs.”
In a statement, ADF senior counsel Denise Harle said the law “impedes women’s ability to receive critical services during a very difficult time in their lives, suppresses the free-speech rights of Care Net and other faith-based pregnancy centers serving women in the community, and punishes those who abide by their religious beliefs.”
State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, is serving as local counsel for ADF in the case.
Tong said in a statement Wednesday that he intends to defend the new law in court.
“Women need accurate and timely information about their reproductive health choices,” Tong said. “It’s indefensible to lie to women at a vulnerable time. I testified in support of Connecticut’s law and am fully prepared to defend it in court.”
The law was approved by the Connecticut legislature earlier this year after emotional debate, mostly along partisan lines, with Democrats arguing that crisis pregnancy centers shouldn’t be able to mislead patients about the services they provide.
“Put simply, if you sell Subarus, don’t claim it’s a Mercedes-Benz,” said Rep. Christine Palm, a Chester Democrat. “If you’re a bakery, don’t pretend that you sell fruit just because it’s another food item. If you’re a dentist, you’re not an epidemiologist, even though you’re in the medical field. And if you provide adoption counseling and you discourage people from getting abortions, don’t imply, suggest or insinuate that you do otherwise.”
Opponents countered that there have been no recent complaints about deceptive advertising at crisis pregnancy centers, with Rep. Whit Betts, a Bristol Republican, calling the legislation “unjustified, unwarranted, and very definitely unfair.”
Under the bill, Tong’s office will investigate complaints about deceptive advertising. Centers found to be in violation can be fined up to $500 and charged “reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.”
The ADF, sometimes billed as the religious-conservative answer to the ACLU, has frequently taken up cases involving abortion, including in Connecticut. In 2014, the group helped a Killingly couple sue Access Health CT because the state’s health exchange did not offer any policies excluding abortion coverage, after which Connecticut officials agreed to offer plans that exclude payments for selective abortions.
More recently, the ADF filed a federal lawsuit claiming that two transgender high school sprinters in Connecticut had an unfair advantage over cisgender girls in track and field events.
Alex Putterman can be reached at email@example.com.