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New London pro-life pregnancy center says new state law violates First Amendment rights

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New London — More than 600 women step through the red front door of a white house on Montauk Avenue each year, facing unplanned pregnancies and looking for help.

Inside, they find medical providers who offer pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, support services such as Bible study groups and adoption referrals, and donations of everything from cribs to diapers. But what they won’t find is the option to have an abortion, take an emergency contraceptive, or be referred to a place that offers either.

Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center of Southeastern Connecticut, the private, pro-life New London center at 492 Montauk Ave., on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit challenging the new state law that it says is unconstitutional.

Through the conservative advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, Care Net is arguing that the law violates First Amendment rights. The law, which went into effect in July, says that any place considered a “limited services pregnancy center” — meaning a pregnancy center that doesn’t directly provide abortion services or emergency contraception, or referrals for either — cannot make or disseminate information that they can reasonably assume to be deceptive.

The law says that if these types of centers publish or provide deceptive information about people’s health care options, they may face fines or even lawsuits. If a service center is found to be putting out misleading information through advertising, online or in-office materials, they also may be required to publish new, factual information at their own cost.

Care Net is worried, according to its attorney Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for ADF, that this law will prohibit the center's ability to freely communicate with clients, uphold pro-life religious beliefs and fully and freely practice religion.

ADF is asking the court to block the law and declare it a violation of constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech, freedom of religion, due process and equal protection. ADF said it is looking to protect Care Net’s right to “exercise its religious beliefs and to speak about those beliefs so it can help women with concerns about pregnancy and motherhood.”

The measure was passed earlier this year after extensive and emotional debate, with legislators voting mostly along party lines — Democrats argued that service centers shouldn't be able to mislead or deceive potential patients. They argued that women facing unplanned pregnancies deserve to know all of their options.

Care Net, which is privately owned and faith-based, provides free support, limited medical services and referrals to people facing unplanned pregnancies and helps more than 600 people a year in New London County, according to Director Lisa Maloney.

But on its website, Care Net makes it clear on each landing page that it "does not provide or refer for terminations or emergency contraception."

“On every single page we have the disclaimer that we do not provide or make referrals for abortions, so we’re very clear about that before they even send an email or text message,” Maloney said.

The center has a drop-down tab for “abortion info” that leads to links with information about different types of pregnancy termination. The “abortion info” page features a button to schedule an appointment, but that appointment won’t offer any abortion services or referrals.

The center’s website previously featured a message that said “pregnant and need help?” but Theriot said it was taken down out of fear of retaliation under the new law.

Theriot said the law is creating a “chilling effect,” and it is unclear what Care Net is and isn’t allowed to say.

“It unfairly targets limited service pregnancy centers and it does so in such vague language that it's difficult to know what's prohibited, because you can violate the law by omitting language,” he said. “You have to be careful about what you say and what you don't say.”

ADF is arguing that the law targets the speech of only pro-life, faith-based centers and is “an attempt to control faith-based voices.”

State Attorney General William Tong said Wednesday that he is ready to take the stand to continue supporting the law and women's rights to factual information about health care options.

“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.”

According to the lawsuit, ADF is arguing that “because Care Net believes that every human being is made in the image of God and is of precious worth at each and every stage of life, Care Net cannot refer or provide abortions or abortifacient drugs without violating religious beliefs.”

They also said in the suit that the law violates their religious beliefs about truthfulness and their ability to communicate their beliefs, and that being forced to issue corrective speech “will bear moral and spiritual implications.”

“Pregnancy centers should be free to serve women and offer the services they need without fear of unjust punishment,” said Theriot, who said he thinks the law unjustly targets only one type of service center. “It’s just not a two-way street, and tolerance is usually a two-way street, or it could be.”

t.hartz@theday.com

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