Press Release

Appeals court rules for Texas bishops in privacy dispute Court temporarily protects Catholic ministries from unconstitutional government interference

Media Contact

Melinda Skea 202-349-7224 media@becketlaw.org

Additional Information

AUSTIN, TEXAS – Late yesterday 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 in Austin, Texas.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

Additional Quotes available for use:

The following may be attributed to Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio: “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.”

The following may be attributed to Bishop Edward J. Burns, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas: “The bishops of Texas, and indeed everyone throughout the United States, are gravely concerned about the plight of immigrant children being tossed aside and separated from their mothers at our southern border, yet we are also having to answer to a lawsuit regarding our concerns for aborted children being tossed into a landfill.  From my perspective, the similarities of these stories are striking. 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. We believe that life is sacred from the moment of conception. We also believe that 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.”

The following may be attributed to Bishop Joe S. Vásquez, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin: “As bishops we have not just a right but a duty to speak out on issues that concern justice, mercy, and a consistent ethic on life. But if we bishops are to speak with one voice, we must be able to deliberate with one another privately to reach a consensus. That is why the court’s protection is so vital for our Church.”

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).