New York must stop demanding private info from Sisters of Life after court order

Sisters of Life Two religious sisters in Sisters of Life embrace. | Credit: Sisters of Life (photo by Martin Jernberg)

The State of New York agreed to a court order that forbids officials from demanding private and sensitive information from Sisters of Life, a pro-life Catholic religious order. 

Sisters of Life, which provides life-affirming counseling services and resources to women in crisis pregnancies, sued state officials in September 2022 over a law that allowed the Department of Health to investigate pro-life pregnancy centers by demanding internal documents and private information about the centers’ policies. 

The court order, which New York officials signed on Wednesday, Nov. 8, states that officials are “ordered not to take any enforcement action of any kind against” Sisters of Life based on the religious order’s refusal to comply with “any survey, document request, or information request” authorized by the new law. 

“[The Department of Health’s] authority to request data and information pursuant to the statute, and to take any enforcement action relating thereto, ends,” according to the order. 

Sister Maris Stella, the vicar general of the Sisters of Life, said in a statement that “we are grateful for this victory, which protects our right to continue to uphold and defend the beauty and strength of women” and “it’s our privilege to walk alongside each woman who comes to us and to stand in solidarity with her, helping her to move in freedom, not in fear.” 

“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,” she continued. “We are called to bring hope, comfort, and joy to women who feel they have nowhere else to turn. The judge’s order will protect us as we continue our ministry.”

The 2022 law specifically targeted pro-life pregnancy centers by singling out organizations that provide pregnancy counseling and resources but do not refer women for abortions. The lawsuit noted that the law allows state officials to access private information “without a warrant and without any reason to suspect that the organization is violating any law,” which the order’s lawyers argued was a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. 

In addition to the purported Fourth Amendment violations, the lawsuit argued that demanding this information infringes upon First Amendment protections of free speech and freedom of religion, noting that Sisters of Life’s opposition to abortion is a matter of the religious order’s faith and doctrine. 

The lawsuit further argued that turning over private information would harm its mission because “relationships of trust and confidence with pregnant women are chilled by the government’s claimed ability to obtain documents and information about those women and their conversations with the Sisters.”

Mark Rienzi, the president and CEO of Becket Law, which represented the sisters, referred to the court order as a win in a statement. 

“This order is a win for the Sisters and the women they serve,” Rienzi said. “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.”

Although the order protects Sisters of Life from government intrusion, it does not comment on the legality of the law itself. The order only applies to Sisters of Life but does not force the state to change its policies and does not force state officials to admit to violations of the law or wrongdoing. 

The New York attorney general’s office could not be reached for comment. 

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