An appeals court has blocked a demand from Texas abortionists to inspect private emails and other religious communications belonging to nearly two dozen Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops in the state.
A trial court judge had ordered the communications to be turned over in a lawsuit brought by several abortion businesses against a new law requiring that human remains be interred in cemeteries or cremated rather than being dumped in landfills.
The bishops were not part of that lawsuit, which was by abortionists against the state.
Nevertheless, the abortionists demanded the private communications of the Catholic leaders.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled to stay the lower court’s decision pending the filing of briefs in the case, which was brought by Whole Woman’s Health, Brookside Women’s Medical Center, Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, Alamo City Surgery Center and several individuals, Lendol Davis, and Bhavik Khumar.
The defendant is Charles Smith, executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services commission.
The non-profit legal group Becket, which is representing the Texas Catholic Conference, explained the trial court judge’s order was for the bishops “to hand over their emails and other private religious communications to an abortion facility.”
The bishops said such information was 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,” Becket explained.
“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.”
Becket’s report sai 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.”
Eric Rassbach, senior counsel for Becket, said: “In an age where Facebook watches our every move, privacy is more important than ever. 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.”
While the bishops already had complied with orders to turn over communications with outside groups, they objected to the demand for “their private internal religious deliberations.”
“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.”
Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio said: “God calls us to reason together as we work to protect human dignity, and that is what my brother bishops and I must often do in order to carry out our mission of service to both our church and our communities. We are grateful for the court’s ruling yesterday and hope for a common-sense resolution.”
It’s not the first private religious communications have been demanded in a Texas case. In 2014, then-Houston mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian, demanded the sermons, notes and other communications of Christian pastors who had publicly opposed her measuring creating special rights for LGBT citizens.
She ended up being rebuked by both the courts and voters, who ultimately rejected her plan.