By / Jun 26

What just happened?

The Supreme Court ruled today on National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Xavier Becerra, Attorney General of California, a case regarding a California law that threatened to shut down pregnancy resource centers serving women and children in need.

What is this case about?

The case of NIFLA v. Becerra dealt with important First Amendment freedom issues as related to pregnancy resource centers who work with a pro-life mission.

In October 2015, California enacted the Reproductive FACT (Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency) Act. This law requires that licensed medical centers, including pro-life pregnancy centers (aka crisis-pregnancy centers [CPC]/pregnancy help organizations [PHO]) provide a notice to women stating, “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].”

The law also forces non-medical pregnancy centers to add to all advertisements a large disclosure in multiple languages about their non-medical status. Violation of this law results in a fine of $500 for a first offense and then $1,000 for each subsequent offense.

That same month the law was passed, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), a national legal network of 1,430 pro-life pregnancy centers, filed lawsuits in each of California’s four district courts to stop the law from going into effect. The ERLC joined other pro-life ministries in January 2018 in filing an amicus brief for this case advocating for the center’s First Amendment rights.

Multiple pregnancy resource centers filed lawsuits based on free speech and religious exercise claims immediately following passage of the Reproductive FACT Act. While one religious non-profit was successful in court, most pro-life centers have not been able to be exempted from the regulations.

NIFLA sought a preliminary injunction to prohibit the law’s enforcement. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case and rejected NIFLA’s free speech and religious exercise arguments. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in November 2017, but agreed to hear only NIFLA’s free speech claims.

How did the Court rule?

The Court ruled that the licensed notice likely violates the First Amendment. Because of the posture of the case, the Court did not rule on this issue directly, but the Court’s reasoning leaves little doubt that the California law will be struck down. The Court held that the licensed notice is a content-based regulation and compels petitioners to speak a particular message and alters the content of their speech.

The California law required clinics to provide a government-drafted script about the availability of state-sponsored abortion services, as well as contact information for how to obtain them—the very practice the clinics are devoted to opposing. The Supreme Court said that by requiring the clinics to inform women how they can obtain state-subsidized abortions—while at the same time they were trying to dissuade women from choosing that option— the licensed notice plainly “alters the content” of petitioners’ speech.

The Ninth Circuit did not apply strict scrutiny because it concluded that the notice regulates “professional speech.” But in the majority opinion the justices note that the Supreme Court has never recognized “professional speech” as a separate category of speech subject to different rules, and that speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by professionals.

The Court also determined that the requirement non-medical pregnancy centers post a notice they are not medical centers is “unjustified and unduly burdensome” because the requirements for the notice “drowns out the facility’s own message.” The example the Court gives is a billboard for an pregnancy center that says “Choose Life” would have to surround that two-word statement with a 29-word statement from the government, in as many as 13 different languages.

How did the justices vote in this case?

The vote was 5-4 with Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch voting for and Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan voting against.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Alito, and Gorsuch joined. Justice Kennedy also filed a concurring opinion, in which Roberts, Alito, and Gorsuch joined. Justice Breyer filed dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.

What are the broader implications of this case?

The ruling is a significant victory for free speech, and signals that the Supreme Court will not allow an individual’s speech to be compelled by the states without sufficient justification or warrant.

The Court also held that so-called “professional speech” is also protected under the First Amendment. The majority opinion notes that as with other kinds of speech, regulating the content of professionals’ speech “pose[s] the inherent risk that the Government seeks not to advance a legitimate regulatory goal, but to suppress unpopular ideas or information.” The ruling also points out that when the government polices the content of professional speech, it can fail to “‘preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail.’” As Justice Thomas writes,

Professionals might have a host of good faith disagreements, both with each other and with the government, on many topics in their respective fields. Doctors and nurses might disagree about the ethics of assisted suicide or the benefits of medical marijuana; lawyers and marriage counselors might disagree about the prudence of prenuptial agreements or the wisdom of divorce; bankers and accountants might disagree about the amount of money that should be devoted to savings or the benefits of tax reform. “[T]he best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” (Abrams v. United States), and the people lose when the government is the one deciding which ideas should prevail.

The ruling does, however, leave open the possibility that there may be a legitimate “reason for treating professional speech as a unique category that is exempt from ordinary First Amendment principles.” But California failed to make a persuasive case in their licensing notice. The ruling also does not challenge the legality of health and safety warnings “long considered permissible, or purely factual and uncontroversial disclosures about commercial products.”

In his concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy summarizes why allowing laws like this to stand poses a threat to free expression:

This law is a paradigmatic example of the serious threat presented when government seeks to impose its own message in the place of individual speech, thought, and expression. For here the State requires primarily pro-life pregnancy centers to promote the State’s own preferred message advertising abortions. This compels individuals to contradict their most deeply held beliefs, beliefs grounded in basic philosophical, ethical, or religious precepts, or all of these.

And the history of the Act’s passage and its underinclusive application suggest a real possibility that these individuals were targeted because of their beliefs.

By / Nov 23

The tax-exempt status of religious institutions remains a topic of discussion in American public life, and from time to time, public debate regarding this issue flares up and becomes more intense. This appears to be one of those times, which is evident from several recently published articles and opinion pieces in prominent news outlets debating the wisdom of tax exemptions.

By / Oct 13

Youth suicide is a major public health concern in the United States, and a leading cause of death for children 5 to 11. Here are five facts you should know about children and suicide:

1. Suicide in elementary school–aged children (age 5-11) is rare (a rate of 0.17 per 100,000 persons) compared to the rates for children and teens age 12-17 (5.1 per 100,000). Nevertheless, in 2014 suicide was still ranked as the 10th leading cause of death for elementary school–aged children in the United States.

2. Although the suicide rates for white adolescents and young adults is higher than for black adolescents and young adults, the suicide rate in elementary school–aged black children is higher than in white children. A recent study also found that 36.8 percent of elementary school–aged children who committed suicide were black compared with 11.6 percent of early adolescent suicide victims.

3. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics (September 2016) found that approximately one-third of all elementary school–aged suicide victims had a mental health problem at the time of their death. Among those with a mental health problem, a diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder/attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) was more common in children who died by suicide compared with early adolescents who died by suicide (59.3 percent versus 29.0 percent), whereas depression/dysthymia was more common among early adolescents who died by suicide compared with children who died by suicide (65.6 percent versus 33.3 percent).

4. The vast majority of child suicides are male (85 percent) and take their life at home (84 percent). The most common method of suicide is by hanging/strangulation/suffocation (80.5 percent), while firearms account for 13.8 percent and poisoning 3 percent. Less than 1 in 3 (29.5 percent) children disclosed an intent to commit suicide and only about 8 percent leave a suicide note.

5. The most common circumstance that lead to the suicide was a relationship problem (47 percent) Children who died by suicide were more likely to have relationship problems with family members and friends, whereas boyfriend/girlfriend problems were the most common factor for early adolescents who died by suicide. School problems accounted for 25 percent while recent crisis accounted for 30 percent. The study also found that rates of alcohol or substance abuse problems and the presence of alcohol or illicit drugs at the time of death were generally low. However, 3.9 percent of children and 7.5 percent of early adolescents, who died by suicide tested positive for opiates, rates higher than alcohol and other substances.

If you know someone who is considering suicide, do not leave him or her alone. Try to get your loved one to seek immediate help from his or her doctor or the nearest hospital emergency room. Remove any access they may have potential tools for suicide, including medications. Call 911 or the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

By / Jun 2

What is Zika?

Zika is a disease caused by the Zika virus, which is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito, says the Centers for Disease Control. Only 1 in 5 people infected by the virus show any symptoms, the most common being fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes). Adults infected with Zika usually have only mild symptoms that last less than a week.

Most people infected don’t get sick enough go to the hospital and very rarely die of Zika. (A rare nervous system disorder that causes temporary paralysis (Guillain-Barre syndrome) may also be linked to the infection, though that has not yet been established.)

If the effect of Zika is so mild, why is there so much concern?

Although Zika is rarely harmful to most adults, it could be dangerous for pregnant women and is suspected of causing birth defects in newborns. The infection of pregnant women by the virus is believed to be the cause of thousands of babies being born with microcephaly.

Although no scientific evidence has confirmed a link between the virus and microcephaly, the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified Zika a global public health emergency because of a spike in both Zika and microcephaly cases in Brazil since May 2015.

What is microcephaly?

Microcephaly is a condition where a baby is born with a small head or the head stops growing after birth. As the WHO notes, microcephaly is usually a rare condition, with one baby in several thousand being born with the birth defect. If this combines with poor brain growth, babies with microcephaly can have developmental disabilities.

The WHO says the most reliable way to assess whether a baby has microcephaly is to measure head circumference 24 hours after birth, compare this with WHO growth standards, and continue to measure the rate of head growth in early infancy. The disease currently affects about 25,000 children every year in the United States. There is no specific treatment for microcephaly.

Can a woman transmit Zika virus to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth?

According to the WHO, Zika virus infection close to term could potentially be transmitted during childbirth, although this has not been proven to date. The CDC, however, claims that the Zika virus can be passed from a mother to child during pregnancy.

Can a previous Zika infection cause a woman who later gets pregnant to have a baby with microcephaly?

The CDC says there is no evidence to suggest that Zika virus, after it is cleared from the blood, poses a risk of birth defects for future pregnancies. Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for about a week.

How is Zika transmitted?

Zika virus is transmitted to people through the bite of an infected mosquito from the Aedes genus, mainly Aedes aegypti in tropical regions. This is the same mosquito that transmits dengue and yellow fever.

As the New York Times explains, only female mosquitoes bite people since they need blood in order to lay eggs. They pick up the virus when they drink the blood of a human. The virus then travels from the mosquitos gut through their circulatory system to their salivary glands and is injected into its next human victim. “Mosquito saliva contains proteins that keeps blood from clotting,” The New York Times adds. “When a mosquito bites it first injects saliva so that its prey’s blood does not clog its straw-like proboscis.”

People can transmit the virus to mosquitos even if they themselves do not show symptoms of being infected.

Can the virus be transmitted through sexual intercourse?

Yes. According to the CDC, Zika virus can be spread by a man to his sex partners. Because the virus is present in semen longer than in blood, the virus can be spread when the man has symptoms, before symptoms start and after symptoms resolve.

Can the virus be transmitted through blood transfusion?

Currently, there have not been any confirmed blood transfusion transmission cases in the United States. There have been multiple reports of blood transfusion transmission cases in Brazil, notes the CDC, and during the French Polynesian outbreak, 2.8 percent of blood donors tested positive for Zika and in previous outbreaks, the virus has been found in blood donors.

Is there a vaccine or cure for Zika?

There is currently no vaccine or cure, and even diagnostic testing is difficult. Scientists say that while a vaccine could be ready for testing in two years, it may be another decade for it to be approved by regulators.

What areas have been affected by Zika?

Prior to 2015, Zika virus outbreaks occurred in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Since then, it has been reported in Central America, most countries in South America, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and America Samoa.

No local mosquito-borne Zika virus disease cases have been reported in U.S. states, but there have been, to date, 591 travel-associated cases (including 11 involving sexual transmission of the virus). There is currently no travel ban to any of the affected countries.

How are these countries responding?

Several countries—including Colombia, Jamaica and Honduras—have urged women to delay having babies. El Salvador even took the controversial step of encouraging women not to get pregnant until 2018.

This has been especially contentious since many of these countries have large Roman Catholic populations. “A campaign to delay pregnancy would seem to be an implicit endorsement of birth control,” The Washington Post notes. “For a region that is majority Roman Catholic, this presents a potential conflict, as the church has long condemned contraception.”

Does the virus pose a threat to the Olympic Games?

Last week the World Health Organization released a statement saying there is "no public health justification" for postponing or canceling the Rio de Janeiro Olympics because of the Zika outbreak. According to WHO, "based on current assessment, cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus."

By / May 5

“By any measure, religious freedom abroad has been under serious and sustained assault since the release of our commission’s last Annual Report in 2015,” says the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “From the plight of new and longstanding prisoners of conscience, to the dramatic rise in the numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, to the continued acts of bigotry against Jews and Muslims in Europe, and to the other abuses detailed in this report, there was no shortage of attendant suffering worldwide.”

In the USIRF’s 2016 report, which the State Department released earlier on Monday, the commission notes that the incarceration of prisoners of conscience “remains astonishingly widespread, occurring in country after country, and underscores the impact of the laws and policies that led to their imprisonment.”

Here are five facts from the report about the persecution of Christians:

1. In China, Christian communities have “borne a significant brunt of the oppression, with numerous churches bulldozed and crosses torn down. Pastor Bao Guohua and his wife, Xing Wenxiang, were sentenced in Zhejiang Province in February 2016 to 14 and 12 years in prison, respectively, for leading a Christian congregation that was opposing a government campaign to remove crosses atop churches.

2. In Sudan, the government  stiffened penalties for both apostasy and blasphemy. The regime prosecutes Christian pastors on trumped-up charges and marginalizes the country’s minority Christian community. It imposes a restrictive interpretation of Shari’ah law and applies corresponding hudood punishments (such as whipping, amputation, and stoning to death) on Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

3. Boko Haram continues to attack with impunity both Christians and many Muslims. From bombings at churches and mosques to mass kidnappings of children from schools, Boko Haram has cut a wide path of terror across vast swaths of Nigeria and in neighboring countries, leaving thousands killed and millions displaced

4. The situation is “particularly grave” for Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians in Eritrea. The government requires all physically- and mentally-capable people between the ages of 18 and 70 to perform a full-time, indefinite, and poorly-paid national service obligation, which includes military, development, or civil service components.  There are no exemptions for conscientious objections and individuals completing their national service obligation in the military are prohibited from practicing their religion. Failure to participate in the national service results in being detained, sentenced to hard labor, abused, and having one’s legal documents confiscated.

5. The report notes numerous incidents over the past year of Iranian authorities raiding church services, threatening church members, and arresting and imprisoning worshipers and church leaders, particularly converts to Evangelical forms of Christianity. Since 2010, authorities “arbitrarily arrested and detained more than 550 Christians throughout the country.” As of February 2016, approximately 90 Christians were either in prison, detained, or awaiting trial because of their religious beliefs and activities.

By / Feb 25

C. Everett Koop died last year at the age of 96. Here are nine things you should know about the former surgeon general.

1. In 1981, Dr. Charles Everett Koop—his lifelong nickname was "Chick", short for "chicken coop"—had never served in public office when President Ronald Reagan appointed him surgeon general of the United States. He served from 1982 to 1989 during the Reagan administration and the early months of the administration of George H.W. Bush. At a congressional hearing in 2007, Koop spoke about political pressure on the surgeon general post. He said Reagan was pressed to fire him every day, but Reagan would not interfere.

2. At the age of 14, Koop operated on rabbits, rats, and stray cats in his basement after his mother had administered anesthesia. By his account, not one of the animals died.

3. Koop was a pioneer in pediatric surgery, inventing many of the anesthetic and surgical techniques that are now used on neonates and infants. He first gained international recognition in 1957 by the separation of two female infants conjoined at the pelvis and then, again, in 1974 by the separation of two twins conjoined at the spine who shared a liver, colon, and parts of the intestines. He established the nation's first neonatal surgical intensive care unit in 1956 and became the first editor of the Journal of Pediatric Surgerywhen it was founded in 1966.

4. In 1950, Koop removed the appendix of a young girl named Priscilla, which sparked a lifelong friendship with the girl's parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer. In 1979 Koop and Schaeffer collaborated on a book and film project, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, which played a key role in motivating evangelicals in supporting the burgeoning pro-life movement.

5. Although raised as a Baptist, Koop became a Presbyterian after attending a church near the hospital were he worked as a surgeon,  Despite being a devout Christian and activist for pro-life causes, he told a Senate panel during his confirmation hearing that he would not use the surgeon general's post to promote his religious ideology. He said he believed politics and personal views had no place in making public health policy. During his  tenure as surgeon general he avoided making pronouncements about abortion.

6. Koop became surgeon general the year the AIDS pandemic began and played an important role in educating Americans about the disease. Because of the political concerns about the disease, Koop rewrote 17 drafts of his 36-page report on AIDS. An eight-page version was later mailed to every American household in 1988, the largest public health mailing ever done by the government.

In his report Koop claimed the best protection against AIDS was abstinence and monogamy, but that condoms were a necessary precaution for those who were willing to engage in high-risk sexual behavior. Koop personally opposed homosexuality and sex outside of marriage but said that medical experts had a duty to tell people who did not choose those paths how they could stay healthy. "My position on AIDS was dictated by scientific integrity and Christian compassion," Koop wrote in his 1991 biography, Koop: The Memoirs of America's Family Doctor.

7. In 1986, Koop issued a surgeon general's report about smoking, stating that secondhand smoke had been conclusively proved to cause cancer. His efforts helped raise the profile of modern anti-smoking campaigns (the percentage of Americans who smoked dropped from 33 percent in when he took office to 26 percent when he left). By 1987, 40 states had restricted smoking in public places, 33 had prohibited it on public areas, and 17 had banned it in offices and other work sites. More than 800 local antismoking ordinances had been passed, and the federal government had restricted smoking in 6,800 federal buildings. His efforts, however, made him unpopular with tobacco executives and politicians from tobacco-farming states. Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina, a Democrat, called for his impeachment, and Senator Jesse Helms, a Republican, tried unsuccesfully to have Congress investigate him.

8. In 1997 he founded, a popular medical information website that was valued at more than $1 billion before it went bankrupt in the collapse of the Internet bubble.

9. The military-style uniform worn by surgeons generals had fallen into disuse until they were revived by Koop, who thought they would make people take him more seriously. The U.S. Public Health Service—which began in 1870 to serve merchant sailors—is a uniformed service and the surgeon general is the equivalent of a three-star admiral.

See Also:  C. Everett Koop’s Address to the SBC’s Christian Life Commission

Note: This article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition