(LifeSiteNews) — The Sisters of Life recently celebrated a legal win after a court order protected their rights to retain private information rather than sharing it in targeted investigations of pro-life pregnancy centers.
A legal battle that began after the leaked Dobbs opinion and just before the historic overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022 has come to an end as the Catholic pro-life apostolate of religious sisters, based in New York, have been granted their rights to privacy thanks to a court order that came from a legal request made by the sisters.
“In June 2022, the state of New York passed a law targeting life-affirming pregnancy centers for government investigation,” reads an email announcement from the religious community that was shared with LifeSiteNews. “This authorized the New York Commissioner of Health to demand private information from pregnancy centers that do not offer abortion services.”
The email explained that the “sensitive internal documents” that were readily accessible to the government under the new law “forced” the sisters to share details “that would jeopardize our trusting relationships with our women.” They further pointed out that, within the order’s Visitation Mission for women in crisis pregnancies, the personal information about their clients is “kept confidential” and that betraying such confidentiality “put[s] these women at risk.”
After the passage of the new law, the Sisters for Life “asked the federal court for an order protecting them from such government intrusion.” The case was taken up free of charge by attorneys with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. More than a year after filing the lawsuit, which was “repeatedly delayed” by the defense, the “State of New York agreed to a court order … that forbids them from demanding our information or punishing us for refusing to provide it.”
“We are profoundly grateful for this victory, which protects our right to continue to uphold and defend the beauty and strength of women!” the Sisters of Life celebrated in their email to supporters. “So, we invite you to join us in rejoicing in this victory and praising the Lord for His goodness and mercy!”
LifeSiteNews contacted the Sisters for Life for additional comment but did not immediately receive a response.
Challenging state law that targets religious freedom
According to a June 13, 2022, press release from the state of New York, Democrat Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a package of legislation designed to protect access to abortion should the United States Supreme Court rule to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legislative actions concerned a variety of initiatives including defending women who travel from states with abortion restrictions for abortions in New York, insurance coverage of abortions and protection for abortionists.
Affecting the Sisters of Life, however, was a statute that, according to the 2022 release, “directs the New York State Department of Health commissioner [Mary Bassett] to conduct a study and issue a report examining the unmet health and resource needs facing pregnant people [sic] in New York and the impact of limited-service [pro-life] pregnancy centers.” To do so, Bassett was granted legal authority to obtain sensitive and personal information about the women served by the Sisters of Life.
According to court documents filed on behalf of the religious community, the sisters requested by letter that Bassett adhere to the American Constitution and respect their religious beliefs regarding abortion. The letter was sent on July 15, 2022, and requested written confirmation that the state would not enforce such infringement on their religious freedom by August 1, 2022. However, the Department of Health failed to respond.
Weeks later, the Becket law firm resent the letter on behalf of the sisters, this time including General Counsel Kathy Marks, who represents the New York Department of Health. On August 30, 2022, a week after filing the second request, “the Sisters of Life received a two-sentence letter” from Marks that “did not disavow enforcement as to the Sisters” but rather said the state was “reviewing the enacted legislation and determining appropriate next steps for implementation.”
In September 2022, the religious community “made the difficult decision, after much discernment, to protect the women they serve by suing the State of New York,” a press release from Becket read at the time. “Their hope is for a quick resolution that will allow them to focus on the women and children in their community that need them now more than ever.”
Last week, the law firm issued another release announcing the victory, in which Sr. Maris Stella, the Vicar General of the Sisters of Life, celebrated that the “order will protect us as we continue our ministry.” She added that, during the apostolate’s 30-year ministry, they “have learned that what a woman really needs is to be seen, heard and believed in, which is why we are committed to providing the necessary emotional, practical and spiritual support for her to flourish.”