The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal in the case Whole Woman’s Health v. Texas Catholic Conference et al, in which the abortion provider sought to force the Catholic bishops of Texas to hand over all internal communications related to abortion.
The Feb. 19 decision was the last in a series of setbacks for Whole Women’s Health as they tried to compel a massive disclosure of in-house documents by the Church in Texas, in response to the bishops' support for a law which would require the burial or cremation of all aborted children.
In a statement released to CNA, the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomed the decision by the Supreme Court which, they said was a vindication of their religious freedom rights.
“The bishops are very grateful the Supreme Court has upheld the ruling of the Fifth Circuit, which protects the private religious communications of the bishops from a fishing expedition by abortion providers seeking access to our ministry information,” said the statement.
A 2017 law passed in Texas required that the remains of unborn children must be buried or cremated rather than disposed of by other means, including be flushed into the sewer system or sent to landfills.
At the time the law was passed, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (TCCB) voiced their support for the legislation and offered free burials for the remains of aborted babies.
Whole Woman’s Health responded by subpoenaing the bishops and demanded access to all internal communications regarding abortion, including any theological and doctrinal debates on the issue. The subpoena was filed despite the bishops not being party to the suit.
The Texas bishops released more than 4,000 pages of external communications on abortion, but applied for emergency relief to preserve their private correspondence.
In July 2018, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the trial court’s application of the subpoena, and the full court declined to hear the case in August. Whole Women’s Health then applied to the Supreme Court, which rejected the appeal on Tuesday.
In the Fifth Circuit Court’s decision, the judges described the subpoena as going “to the heart of the constitutional protection of religious belief and practice as well as citizens’ right to advocate sensitive policies in the public square.”
The court said that the Catholic bishops were left with a “Hobson’s choice” of either “retreating from the public square or defending its position.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the Texas bishops in the case, released a statement praising the outcome.
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket said in the statement that the 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.”
“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,” he said.
In an earlier comment on the Fifth Circuit’s decision, Rassbach noted that “Constant surveillance of religious groups is a hallmark of totalitarian societies, not a free people.”