Court grants Sisters of Life protection from state's investigation into pregnancy resource centers
(OSV News) -- The Sisters of Life, the community of women religious founded in New York City to protect human life and serve pregnant women in need, have prevailed in their lawsuit against an attempt to seek the internal records of their pregnancy resource centers.
On. Nov. 8, the state of New York agreed to a federal court order forbidding state officials from demanding the order's information or punishing the sisters for refusing to provide it.
In Sisters of Life v. McDonald, a case brought in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the order was represented by Becket, a Washington-based public interest law firm specializing in religious liberty cases.
The Sisters of Life religious order has more than 100 sisters serving in New York, Arizona, Connecticut, Colorado, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and Toronto. It operates pregnancy resource centers, which provide counseling for abortion-minded women, as well as baby clothing.
The state's demand for the order's records was the result of a package of six statutes signed by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul in June 2022 after a leak from the Supreme Court made it evident that the court was about to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which made abortion a constitutional right. Hochul signed the legislation before the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision of June 24, 2022.
In signing the bills, Hochul said, "The women of New York will never be subjugated to government mandated pregnancies ... This is the United States of America, where freedom and liberty are supposed to mean something. It's the rock upon which we were founded. It is supposed to mean something.
"Except in the eyes of some Neanderthals who say women are not entitled to those rights. We've endured centuries of misogyny and discrimination and domination, but they are all supposed to be over by now."
Hochul concluded, "We're also going to have a task force to study the impact of limited-service pregnancy centers. We all know what that means on pregnant women."
According to Becket's Nov. 8 statement, "The law would have allowed government officials access to the Sisters' most sensitive internal documents and forced them to turn over private information that would jeopardize their trusting relationships with women in need."
The Sisters of Life were founded in 1991 by the late archbishop of New York, Cardinal John J. O'Connor.
"The government never should have enacted this law, and we are thrilled that it ends with a federal court order that the state should just leave the Sisters alone while they do their important work," Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of Becket, said in a statement.
"In over 30 years of serving women in the state of New York, we 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," Sister Maris Stella, vicar general of the Sisters of Life, said in a statement. "The judge's order will protect us as we continue our ministry."
Kristen Curran, director of government relations for the New York State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's Catholic bishops, said in a Nov. 9 statement that the court order "correctly recognizes the rights of the Sisters to continue their invaluable and critical ministries."
"We celebrate with the Sisters of Life and continue to pray that the entire pregnancy center study will be abandoned," Curran added, "so that all of the people doing good work to serve women and babies may continue to do so without harassment."
Pregnancy resource centers have become a new legal battleground in the pro-life movement following the Dobbs decision.
In July, the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based public interest law firm representing a group of those centers, sued Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. The suit seeks to enjoin Raoul from enforcing Illinois Senate Bill 1909, which declares both advertising and counseling by the centers, including sidewalk counseling, to be a "deceptive business practice."
Peter Breen, executive vice president of the Thomas More Society and a former Illinois state legislator, told OSV News at the time, "the Illinois law is the most expensive restriction on pro-life speech in the country, which is why we are fighting so hard to enjoin it."
The Alliance Defending Freedom is suing the state of Vermont over a law that restricts advertising by the centers, considered a counseling alternative to abortion clinics, and prohibits non-licensed health care professionals from working there.
According to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, as of 2021, there are approximately 3,000 pregnancy center locations in the United States, counting medical mobile units as separate locations.
- - - Kurt Jensen reports for OSV News from Washington.- - - NOTES: A link to the order is here: https://becketnewsite.s3.amazonaws.com/20231108191457/Sisters-of-Life-Stipulation-and-Order-of-Settlement.pdf