The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty (JCRL) is pleased and relieved at the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Charles Smith v. Texas Catholic Conference. The Court’s decision protected the right of religious organizations to engage in internal doctrinal debates and discussion without the fear of government intrusion into the most sensitive and private matters. The JCRL is particularly proud that the brief it submitted was cited in the majority’s opinion in support of the Court’s decision.
The Smith case came to the Fifth Circuit in a peculiar manner. The underlying litigation (on which the JCRL has not taken a position) involves a recently enacted Texas statute requiring that aborted fetuses be either properly buried or cremated. The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (“TCCB”) supported the bill when it was under consideration by the Texas Legislature, and once it became law offered to use Catholic cemeteries in Texas for the purposes of burying fetal remains. Several abortion providers sued the State of Texas claiming that the statute was inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence. Because the TCCB is not an arm of the State, it was not a party to the litigation.
However, during the course of preparing for trial, the challengers sought to compel TCCB to produce thousands of pages of documents regarding its advocacy for the law and its deliberation which led to the decision to permit the burial of the fetal remains in Catholic cemeteries. The TCCB turned over more than 4,000 pages of documents, but withheld additional materials because it contained the discussion of these matters between Catholic bishops wrestling with the implication of accepted Catholic doctrine on the proposals to allow fetal burials. Unsatisfied with TCCB’s document production, the plaintiffs sought an order compelling TCCB to turn over additional materials. The District Court agreed with teh plaintiffs and in an order issued on Father’s Day Sunday, directed the TCCB to turn over 6,000 additional pages to the plaintiffs.
JCRL successfully joined other amicus briefs in urging the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate this intrusive and unreasonable demand. In its brief, the JCRL argued that release of an organization’s internal religious communications undoubtedly has the potential to invite unwarranted intellectual and legal criticism of its beliefs. The brief explained how such intrusion would be particularly problematic for the Jewish community. The brief cited both historical harm to and present day concerns of the Jewish community stemming from the publication of sensitive and confidential religious documents. The JCRL pointed out that non-practitioners may not necessarily have the background to understand the complex religious debates and practices that may seem odd to the outsiders, but ones that carry deep meaning to practitioners. The forcible release of internal communications concerning such matters may result in ridicule (or worse) being heaped on the faithful, especially if they are adherents of a minority religion. Consequently, the JCRL urged the Fifth Circuit to recognize that upholding the discovery order would, by making religious Americans fearful of expressing themselves freely in the confines of their organizations, severely chill the religious freedom.
The JCRL urges religious groups and organizations to band together to protect the people’s ability to freely exercise their religion in word and deed, without fear of government intrusion, and welcomes the Fifth Circuit’s decision as an important step on that road.
To read the court’s full ruling, click here.