Florida urges federal judge to reject abortion law challenge

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With a federal judge poised to hear arguments, the state has fired back at a lawsuit that seeks to block part of a controversial abortion law approved last year by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.

Pointing to what it described as the "plaintiffs' hyperbolic contortions," Attorney General Pam Bondi's office filed a 29-page document arguing that U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle should deny a request for a preliminary injunction against the challenged part of the law. Hinkle is scheduled to hold a hearing on the injunction request Jan. 27.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed the case last month, targeting part of the law dealing with people or organizations that provide advice to women considering abortions. The challenge, filed on behalf of clergy members and abortion-rights proponents, contends that requirements in the law violate First Amendment and privacy rights.

One of the issues in the case focuses on a requirement that people or groups considered abortion "referral or counseling" agencies under the law would have to register with the state Agency for Health Care Administration and pay a fee. The ACLU contends that the registration requirement could apply to a broad range of people or groups that might provide counseling, including clergy members.

But the response filed last week by Bondi's office disputed such a broad reading of the law and defended the registration requirement, saying plaintiffs "blatantly misconceive and distort the nature of that provision, in several key respects, to create a false impression of an adverse impact on the First Amendment's free speech right."

"As part of regulating medical providers, including hospitals and abortion clinics, AHCA (the Agency for Health Care Administration) may permissibly maintain a passive registry of entities paid to advise or give referrals on certain medical procedures; plaintiffs have presented no legal barrier to such a registration system," said the response filed in federal court in Tallahassee.

The case is the latest in a series of legal battles in state and federal courts about abortion laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Hinkle last summer sided with abortion providers in a challenge to other parts of the wide-ranging law approved in 2016. In that decision, Hinkle blocked provisions that would have barred abortion providers from receiving public funds for other services and would have required a dramatic increase in inspections of abortion records by health officials.

In a separate case, the Florida Supreme Court is considering arguments in a challenge to a 2015 law requiring 24-hour waiting periods before woman can obtain abortions.

In the case going before Hinkle next week, the ACLU also targets part of the law that requires people who counsel women about abortion to provide explanations of the procedure, including alternatives, before making referrals or assisting in obtaining abortions.

"It compels private, noncommercial speakers without medical expertise to deliver a state-mandated speech before aiding a woman seeking an abortion in violation of the speaker's First Amendment right to decide for him- or herself what not to say," the complaint said.

But the state's response raised a series of objections to the ACLU's attempt to block the law, including arguing that the plaintiffs don't have legal standing to bring the case. It said, in part, that the plaintiffs "have not even alleged, much less substantiated, any cognizable harm to themselves."

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