A federal appeals court suspended a lower court order Tuesday that would have forced 23 Roman Catholic bishops in Texas to hand over their emails and other private religious communication.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the bishops, say the clergymen were given 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," a statement from the Becket Fund reads.
"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," the statement also noted.
"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," it also said.
"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. "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," says Becket. "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."
Several of the bishops voiced praise for the ruling.
"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," said Bishop Joe S. Vásquez, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin. "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."
Bishop Edward J. Burns, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas, said, "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," said Bishop Burns.