AUSTIN, TEXAS – Late Monday (June 18, 2018) a federal appeals court suspended a trial judge’s order that would have forced the 23 Roman Catholic bishops in Texas to hand over their emails and other private religious communications to an abortion facility. The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops had appealed an Austin-based federal trial court’s order issued Sunday afternoon giving the bishops just 24 hours to hand over private documents they say are protected by the Constitution.
Two years ago, Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion facility chain based in Austin, Texas, sued the State of Texas over a state law requiring abortion facilities to dispose of aborted human remains by burial or cremation, rather than in a landfill. The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is not a party to that lawsuit. Nevertheless, earlier this year Whole Woman’s Health sought access to decades of the Catholic bishops’ communications regarding the topic of abortion, including internal communications regarding moral and theological deliberations among the bishops. The move was apparently related to the bishops’ decision to allow free burial of aborted fetal remains in Catholic cemeteries throughout the state.
After the federal district court upheld the facilities’ demand for internal emails and documents, the bishops requested emergency protection of their internal religious communications from the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is headquartered in New Orleans. Yesterday that court halted the lower court’s order until it can consider arguments on the important constitutional issues at stake.
“In an age where Facebook watches our every move, privacy is more important than ever,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the bishops. “Government should not have unbounded power to insert itself into the private conversations of any group, much less the leadership of the Catholic Church. Constant surveillance of religious groups is a hallmark of totalitarian societies, not a free people.”
The Fifth Circuit also ordered the parties to submit additional briefs to the court by Monday, June 25. While the bishops have already handed over thousands of communications with outside groups, it would gravely interfere with the functioning of their ministry to have to hand over all their private internal religious deliberations as well.
“In our ministry we stand for the marginalized, the poor, and the vulnerable,” said Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston. “But we cannot act on our faith and religious convictions as effectively if we have to give up our ability to deliberate in private as the price of admission to the public square.”
The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is also represented by Steven Levatino of Levatino|Pace, PLLC.