Federal Court Ruling Protects Religious Freedom by Reversing Order Requiring Texas Churches to Turn Over Internal Communications

A federal appeals court ruling that protects a church’s internal communications buttressed both religious freedom and defense of the unborn, according to the Southern Baptist Convention’s church-state entity.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans reversed July 15 a federal judge’s order requiring the Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops of Texas to turn over their private deliberations on what they describe as doctrinal and moral issues.

Though the case involved the Catholic Church, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) had said in a friend-of-the-court brief a failure to vacate the order would also endanger the religious freedom of Southern Baptist and other congregationally governed churches.

ERLC President Russell Moore applauded the Fifth Circuit’s opinion.

“The court’s ruling, which affirms religious liberty, as well as the sanctity of human life, is a victory for all Americans,” Moore said in a written statement. “Churches and religious organizations shouldn’t be forced to disclose private information that could sabotage their ability to protect human dignity and engage in the public square. I am thankful the court acknowledged this in their decision.”

Moore said he prays the bishops and other religious organizations “will continue to stand firm in their convictions as we work to ensure the state respects their constitutional rights.”

The case involves a challenge by the Whole Woman’s Health abortion clinic network — as well as Texas abortion doctors and other abortion providers — to a 2016 state law that requires fetal remains from abortions or miscarriages to be buried or cremated rather than discarded in a landfill or by other means. The Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops (TCCB) is not a party to the lawsuit, but Whole Woman’s Health sought its emails seemingly because the bishops have offered free burial for fetal remains in the church’s cemeteries in the state.

Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin refused June 13 to suppress Whole Woman’s Health’s subpoena of emails and attachments involving TCCB Executive Director Jennifer Allmon since Jan. 1, 2016, on the disposal of the remains of aborted babies. The documents sought “do not address religious doctrine or church governance,” Austin wrote in his order.

On June 18, the Fifth Circuit Court halted the order at the TCCB’s request and called for the filing of briefs in the appeal by June 25.

In the Fifth Circuit’s July 15 divided opinion that blocked Austin’s order, Judge Edith Jones wrote for a three-member panel to say past U.S. Supreme Court opinions “have protected religious organizations’ internal deliberations and decision-making in numerous ways.”

While none of those decisions have directly addressed discovery orders as in this case, “the importance of securing religious groups’ institutional autonomy, while allowing them to enter the public square, cannot be understated and reflects consistent prior case law,” she wrote.

Problems regarding both the First Amendment’s protection of religious free exercise and prohibition on government establishment of religion “seem inherent in the court’s discovery order,” Jones said. “That internal communications are to be revealed not only interferes with TCCB’s decision-making processes on a matter of intense doctrinal concern but also exposes those processes to an opponent and will induce similar ongoing intrusions against religious bodies’ self-government.”

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Source: Baptist Press