Whole Life has been a clear win for anyone who thinks there is something inherently wrong with the notion of women making one’s own decision about whether to end a pregnancy. The “religious liberty” fight against it, however, is off to a rough start.
The 501(c)(3) group is run by Laura and William Mason, the parents of the late D. Todd Christine, who co-founded the news site Media Matters.
Whole Life is the formal name of a effort by several conservative groups – including the American Family Association and the Knights of Columbus – to save taxpayer-funded family planning services from a statutory rape clause in the Texas state budget. The Child Protection Standards Act, which is mostly symbolic as it governs only the family planning providers in Texas, prohibits providers from turning away a child victim of “unlawful sexual conduct” even if she is under 18 years old.
In a press release on Thursday, Whole Life advised fellow church-affiliated organizations that they should direct their attention to the Texas Governor’s Office in Austin to speak with fiscal affairs directors. This department “should ask about any changes in the wording of this provision” that could allow the pro-life organizations to appeal or oppose.
It seems unlikely that the conservative groups will be able to successfully pull off their legal coup, even with all their substantial resources. A legal brief in the case, “Dearborn v. United States,” released this week, states that courts have consistently rejected efforts to block criminal cases of statutory rape based on religious grounds. In 2014, Whole Life was disbarred by the Texas State Supreme Court for violating state law by providing employment services to minors in a professional capacity. The judge in that case, Derrick Watson, is now presiding over Whole Life’s appeal in the Texas case, and has recused himself from any further involvement, so it’s possible that Whole Life is still fully in control.
The conservative groups have filed suit against the state of Texas on at least two previous occasions – to permit private adoption and adoption-related payments, and to overturn the state’s regulations of teen drinking and pregnancy prevention.
In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a decision by the court of appeals in St. Louis to block a broader measure that would prevent the government from ordering religious groups to provide contraception and other reproductive health services.
One of the most prominent defenders of religious liberty today, Senator Mike Lee, was among the Supreme Court justices who voted to uphold the judge’s 2016 order, arguing that Americans have a right to freedom of religion “without requiring that we abandon the rights and responsibilities we have been given as a nation.”
But the anti-abortion advocates are not ceding their claim to what they consider to be constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom. On Thursday, the NIFLaid out its demands to the state of Texas, in its lawsuit on behalf of Whole Life: Instead of passing new funding regulations that would make it harder for social service agencies to stay open, they called for the Governor’s office to “take away the threat of funding cuts that threatened the financial viability of the thousands of agencies that provide limited healthcare and social services to Texas.” The religious organization also called for “an immediate suspension of the new statutory law (especially the vague-but-clear-enough Rape Control Standards) until a new and simpler statutory language is adopted.”
The religious freedom angle will likely be taken up by Republicans on Capitol Hill, where more than 30 “religious liberty” bills have been introduced or are waiting for markup, reports the Wall Street Journal. But, if history is any guide, even with all the religious groups in their corner, the conservative groups seem unlikely to make it through their constitutional rights battle.