Investigations are typically predicated upon some sort of evidence. A government agency, for example, may choose to investigate a person or an organization if the agency receives a complaint or some evidence of wrongdoing. But when Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a series of demand letters to a group of pro-life pregnancy centers, he never cited any such complaints.
The Obria Group is a network of medical centers that provide important care such as ultrasounds, pregnancy testing, STD testing, and more for women who need it. A number of Obria centers also offer abortion pill reversal. The group was founded in 1981 by Kathleen Eaton Bravo, a single mother whose emotional pain following her own abortion led her to help other women choose life.
What began as a single pro-life pregnancy center has grown into a network of 22 centers across six states. This includes Obria Pacific Northwest, a group of three pregnancy centers within the Obria network.
Without citing any complaints from patients or other evidence of wrongdoing, Attorney General Ferguson issued civil investigative demands (CIDs) to both the Obria Group and Obria Pacific Northwest. Ferguson claimed he was investigating “possible” deceptive marketing and “possible” unfair collection and use of consumer data, but he did not provide any factual basis for his suspicions.
The CIDs ordered Obria to submit a massive amount of documentation including sensitive information about contractors, volunteers, and tax preparers; complete agendas and minutes of every meeting of its board of directors; documents sent to donors; employee compensation and retirement policies; documents detailing payments and in-kind transfers from affiliates; all tax forms; and more dating from Jan. 1, 2010, to the present.
Even though Obria provided over 1,500 pages of documents in response to the CIDs, Ferguson and his office continued to demand more documentation and information, violating Obria’s constitutional rights in the process. Eventually, Obria had no choice but to challenge this harassment in court.
What has Ferguson said about abortion?
Ferguson has long been vocal about his support for abortion. During an August 2019 press conference, he said his office had “worked very closely, obviously, with Planned Parenthood” in litigation related to abortion in federal district and appellate courts. He publicly stated that one of his New Year’s resolutions was to “fight” for abortion, and he hosted a press conference and nodded in agreement as the Washington state director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates falsely stated that pregnancy centers’ “sole purpose is to shame people for considering an abortion and share misleading information about pregnancy.”
Consistent with these views, Ferguson has shown no concern about well-established data breaches from Planned Parenthood. But when it came to Obria, he launched extensive investigations and demanded documentation that was not relevant to any “possible” misdeeds.
How does this case relate to religious freedom?
The Obria Group and Obria Pacific Northwest are Christian nonprofits, and both are transparent about their faith guiding their actions. Obria believes that all human life is a sacred gift from God and should be respected as such.
The network exists to provide women and men with the support they need to make life-affirming choices. Most women facing unplanned pregnancies say they would have chosen life if they felt they were supported, and Obria aims to provide this help by supplying ultrasounds, prenatal care, abortion pill reversal, and many more services. It provides these services consistent with its Christian faith.
Attorney General Ferguson has publicly displayed his disdain for pro-life pregnancy centers. He issued CIDs to Obria without citing any supporting evidence to justify his investigation, but shows no similar interest in investigating any of the 46 abortion providers in Washington despite Planned Parenthood’s massive and well-publicized client data breaches. The attorney general is targeting a religious nonprofit because of its views, and that is a violation of the religious freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Is Ferguson violating Obria’s freedom of speech?
Attorney General Ferguson’s actions have also violated Obria’s right to speak freely. By issuing intrusive and overbroad CIDs, Ferguson targeted Obria because the organization has shared its views about abortion.
Obria serves patients from a pro-life viewpoint, advocating for life-affirming solutions that do not include abortion. But Attorney General Ferguson and his office are targeting Obria simply because they do not perform or advocate for abortion. That is viewpoint discrimination, and it’s prohibited by the First Amendment.
The attorney general’s office specifically targeted Obria for its advertising of abortion pill reversal, a medical procedure that can save unborn lives by counteracting the effects of abortion drug mifepristone after a woman has taken it. Abortion pill reversal is legal under both federal and Washington law, and data suggests it has saved over 4,500 lives. Ferguson cannot punish Obria for advertising a legal solution to women who wish to reverse the effects of mifepristone.
The First Amendment also prohibits government officials from retaliating against Americans for speaking out on an issue of concern. Ferguson has demonstrated his animosity toward Obria’s pro-life beliefs, and he is now subjecting Obria to invasive investigations while ignoring well-established violations by pro-abortion groups. This unequal treatment of Obria suggests that the AG is retaliating against the group for expressing views he disagrees with, which is a blatant violation of the First Amendment.
What does the Fourth Amendment say about investigations of this nature?
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans against unreasonable search and seizure by the government. This means that any demands the attorney general’s office makes must be reasonably related to a legitimate investigation.
The fact that Ferguson did not cite any customer complaints or other evidence of wrongdoing when issuing the CIDs already casts doubt on the legitimacy of the investigation. In addition, the CIDs ordered Obria to turn over documentation that had no relation to the “possible” misdeeds, and the 13-year period is more than three times the statute of limitations for a cause to initiate a claim for damages under Washington law. These unreasonable demands clearly violate Obria’s Fourth Amendment rights.
- May 2022: Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued civil investigative demands ordering the Obria Group and Obria Pacific Northwest to submit an absurd amount of documentation. He said the orders related to “possible” misleading advertising and misuse of consumer data, but he provided no supporting evidence.
- November 2023: After Ferguson continued targeting Obria even though it submitted over 1,500 pages of documentation, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit challenging the harassment.