Following a similar federal lawsuit in Vermont, another public interest law firm is suing the state of Illinois over new restrictions on pregnancy resource centers in the state.

The Chicago-based Thomas More Society, representing Rockford Family Initiative in Rockford, Relevant Pregnancy Options Center in Highland, and 1st Way Life Center in Johnsburg, as well as the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, filed the lawsuit July 27 against Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul.

The suit seeks to stop Raoul from enforcing Illinois Senate Bill 1909, which declares both advertising and counseling by the centers, including sidewalk counseling, to be a "deceptive business practice."

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, D-Ill., signed SB 1909 into law on July 27, which the governor's office stated "bars so-called 'crisis pregnancy centers' from using misinformation, deceptive practices, or misrepresentation in order to interfere with access to abortion services or emergency contraception."

"Women need access to comprehensive, fact-based healthcare when making (a) critical decision about their own health -- not manipulation or misinformation from politically motivated, non-medical actors," Gov. Pritzker said in a July 27 statement. "By empowering the Attorney General's office to battle deceptive practices, we're ensuring Illinoisans can make their own decisions about their bodies using accurate and safe information."

The legal challenge brought forward by the Thomas More Society is slightly broader than a similar lawsuit filed in Vermont by Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF is suing that state over a law that restricts advertising by pregnancy resource centers that counsel alternatives to abortion, and also prohibits non-licensed health care professionals from working there.

Violation of the Vermont law could bring fines of up to $10,000. Violation of the Illinois law, named the Deceptive Practices of Limited Services Pregnancy Centers Act, however, could bring fines of up to $50,000.

The Illinois suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Western Division, seeks a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction, and permanent injunction against the bill. Temporary and preliminary injunctions would prevent the law from being enforced as the case proceeds through the court system.

"The Illinois law specifically targets what the abortion side calls 'misinformation' on abortion put forward by Illinois pregnancy health ministries," Peter Breen, executive vice president and head of litigation at the Thomas More Society and a former Illinois state legislator, told OSV News. "To that extent, the Illinois law is the most expansive restriction on pro-life speech in the country, which is why we are fighting so hard to enjoin it."

The lawsuit argues that despite the attorney general's office acknowledging the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act would already regulate any actual deceptive trade practices, the Legislature proceeded to pass a law that "singles out religious and pro-life speech and organizations for disparate treatment."

The bill faulted pro-life groups for "pay(ing) for advertising ... that is intended to attract consumers to their organizations and away from medical (abortion) providers."

In May, the Catholic Conference of Illinois objected to the legislation prior to its enactment, saying it was "left open to a very broad interpretation by the attorney general" and provided "no guidance for pregnancy centers on how they are to avoid violations."

Illinois has about 100 pregnancy resource centers; Vermont has eight. According to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, as of 2019 there were 2,700 pregnancy centers in the United States.

Raoul's July 27 statement on the new law said he had "witnessed deceptive crisis pregnancy center tactics firsthand" while visiting a Planned Parenthood clinic.

"People who appeared as though they might work there were outside attempting to divert patients away from the health center," he said.

But Breen, citing documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, said in a statement, "the attorney general has received zero complaints from members of the public against an Illinois pregnancy help center for alleged violations of the Deceptive Business Practices Act."

The lawsuit states that Raoul's office confirmed during legislative hearings that the law "could prohibit pro-life pregnancy centers from stating that 'Life begins at conception' or require them to speak the state's viewpoint that childbirth is allegedly associated with a 14-times-greater risk of death than abortion, despite studies contradicting that view and in the teeth of the pro-life position that abortion poses a 100% risk of death for the unborn child."