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Court halts abortion clinics from forcing Texas Catholic bishops to hand over internal info

The Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops have won a court battle over religious freedom. (PAUL BUCK/AFP/Getty Images)

The Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops won what's being hailed as a religious freedom victory on Sunday, when a federal appeals court struck down a lower court's decision ordering that the bishops hand over years of internal communications to a chain of abortion clinics.

Well, good. Explain.

A Texas law passed last year requires that fetal remains from miscarriages and abortions must be buried or cremated, but abortion providers argue such requirements put an undue burden on their clinics.

Pro-choice group Center for Reproductive Rights and abortion clinic chain Whole Women's Health teamed up and sued the state over the fetal burial rule, causing a judge to place a temporary injunction on the mandate.

When abortion providers cited cost as part of the reason for fighting the burial requirement, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops offered to bury the remains of aborted babies for free in Catholic cemeteries.

In turn, Whole Women's Health subpoenaed the bishops — who are not party to the lawsuit — to release all of the Conference's internal communications pertaining to miscarriage, abortion, and fetal tissue remains.

US District Judge David Alan Ezra who is presiding over the case, upheld a previous ruling by a magistrate judge ordering the bishops to release their documents, but the Conference appealed Judge Ezra's decision.

So, what did the appellate court say?

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court's decision in a 2-1 opinion, with Judge Edith Jones writing for the majority that Whole Women's Health's demands were "far reaching," and that the Conference's claims "go to the heart of the constitutional protection of religious belief and practice as well as citizens' right to advocate sensitive policies in the public square."

Judge Jim Ho, in his concurring opinion wrote, "The First Amendment expressly guarantees the free exercise of religion — including the right of the Bishops to express their profound objection to the moral tragedy of abortion, by offering free burial services for fetal remains."

He added, "By contrast, nothing in the text or original understanding of the Constitution prevents a state from requiring the proper burial of fetal remains. But from the proceedings below, you would think the opposite were true," and called the previous proceedings "troubling."

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