The Supreme Court rejected an abortion provider's bid to obtain private communications of Catholic officials who helped to lay the remains of aborted babies to rest.
On Monday, the high court announced that it would not take up Whole Woman's Health v. Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops in its next term. The Texas-based abortion chain was appealing a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that rejected its request to dig into the private communications of church officials who helped to bury the remains of aborted babies. The 2-1 majority not only affirmed that burying fetal remains was constitutional, but that the request to review Church records was rooted in intimidation.
"The First Amendment expressly guarantees the free exercise of religion—including the right of the Bishops to express their profound objection to the moral tragedy of abortion, by offering free burial services for fetal remains. By contrast, nothing in the text or original understanding of the Constitution prevents a state from requiring the proper burial of fetal remains," the Fifth Circuit said in its decision. "They leave this Court to wonder if this discovery is sought, inter alia, to retaliate against people of faith for not only believing in the sanctity of life—but also for wanting to do something about it."
The abortion provider appealed the three-judge panel to the entire Fifth Circuit, asking that every judge in the weigh in on the case. That appeal was denied in August. The Catholic Church and its attorneys at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit law firm, welcomed the decision as a victory for religious liberty. Becket Senior Counsel Eric Rassbach said that allowing the case to move forward would punish religious believers and chase them from the public square.
"Thank goodness the Supreme Court saw this appeal for what it was: a nasty attempt to intimidate the bishops and force them to withdraw their offer to bury every child aborted in Texas," he said in a statement. "Abortion groups may think the bishops ‘troublesome,' but it is wrong to weaponize the law to stop the bishops from standing up for their beliefs."
The records request lawsuit began shortly after Whole Woman's Health successfully challenged abortion reforms passed by Texas. In 2016, justices ruled 5-4 that the law infringed on abortion access. In addition to safety regulations and hospital admitting privileges, the law also required that aborted baby remains be given proper burials, rather than treated as medical waste. Catholic cemeteries arranged free burials for aborted babies, which dragged it into Whole Woman's Health's lawsuit against the state government.
Amy Hagstrom, CEO of Whole Woman's Health, said the request for records was "a normal part of the discovery process," and the Supreme Court's rejection will not affect the larger suit against Texas. Hagstrom said her organization will "resist every effort" to pass regulations that prevent fetal remains from being treated as garbage.
"It's an attempt by politicians to shame and stigmatize women who have abortions and interfere with their personal healthcare decisions and religious freedom," she said in a statement. "We believe women are the right and moral decision makers for their own bodies and are fully capable of making choices for themselves and their families."
Update 4:09 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from Whole Woman's Health.