The State of New York had to agree to a federal court order stating that these are internal religious documents protected as such from disclosure to secular authorities.
by Massimo Introvigne
On November 8, the State of New York agreed to an order by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York preventing it from enforcing against the Catholic religious order of the Sisters of Life Chapter 17 of the New York Laws of 2022.
Chapter 17 was introduced by the predominantly pro-choice New York State legislature as a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in “Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” which overturned the pro-abortion decision “Roe v. Wade.” New York passed a package of pro-choice laws days before the Supreme Court “Dobbs” decision, based on a leak about the outcome of that case.
Chapter 17 authorized New York State to collect from “limited-service pregnancy centers,” i.e., from pro-life agencies assisting pregnant women, information about their operations and patients, including the identity of the women they counsel. As New York Governor Kathy Hochul said in so many words, the aim of Chapter 17 was to make life more difficult for pro-life pregnancy centers and for the “Neanderthals” who oppose abortion.
The Sisters of Life are a Roman Catholic religious order established in 1991 in New York and now operating in several U.S. states and in Canada. Its explicit aim is to offer to women who are considering an abortion pro-life counseling and care for them and their children.
When Chapter 17 was enacted, the Sisters of Life requested an exemption claiming that their work is religion-based and that all documents pertaining to it are internal religious documents and as such confidential. The Sisters also objected that by disclosing to state officers the names of the women they counsel they would violate the latter’s right to privacy. The exemption was not granted and the Sisters sued the State of New York. The nuns were represented by Becket, a Washington-based public interest law firm specializing in religious liberty cases.
The court did not take a stand on who is right between the Catholic nuns who regard abortion as evil and the Governor who calls their position “Neanderthal.” The order to which the State of New York had to consent was based on the fact that the records the authorities tried to obtain are internal religious documents, privileged as such.
Several similar lawsuits are pending around the United States, as laws trying to limit the activities of pro-life pregnancy centres, which are largely religion-based, have been enacted in other states as well.