A federal appeals court rejected a Texas abortion chain's demand for all private communications from the state's 23 bishops.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted an emergency appeal from the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops after a lower court gave the church 24 hours to hand over decades of private records to Whole Women's Health.
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"IT IS ORDERED that the emergency motion for stay filed by the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is GRANTED pending further order of this court," the court said in a preliminary ruling [emphasis in original].
The case stems from the clinic's successful lawsuit to block state abortion reforms, which included requiring clinics to properly dispose of the remains of aborted children. Whole Women's Health took the case all the way to the Supreme Court where justices ruled 5-4 that the law infringed on abortion rights. It is now suing the state of Texas and sought church communications because Catholic cemeteries arranged free burials for aborted babies following the implementation of Texas's reforms.
A lower court granted that request, but was met with pushback from the bishops and their attorneys at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm. Their attorney, Becket Fund senior counsel Eric Rassbach, said the request amounted to constant surveillance, comparing it to a totalitarian regime's treatment of religious organizations.
"In an age where Facebook watches our every move, privacy is more important than ever," Rassbach said in a statement. "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."
Whole Women's Health did not respond to request for comment on the ruling or indicate whether it will appeal the stay.
Dallas bishop Edward J. Burns said the lawsuits hindered the ability of Texas churches to respond to the crisis of unaccompanied minors and family separation at the border—which President Trump addressed Wednesday in an executive order. He said family separation is no different than "aborted children being tossed into a landfill."
"It is an outrage to have children taken from their mothers and tossed aside without any real regard for their needs or human dignity. Children are not disposable," Bishop Burns said in a statement. "We believe that life is sacred from the moment of conception."
Burns said the attempt to access communications between clergy and other church leaders would have a chilling effect on the free exercise of religion in the United States.
"We have a right to discuss in private how to address this issue and uphold the dignity of every human life, and that while upholding the sacredness of life may seem at odds with some people, our religious liberties and religious rights should not be eroded," he said.
The ruling gives the parties to the suit seven days to file briefs on the matter.