Sisters of Life v. McDonald: What Nonprofit Organizations Should Know About This Victory for Religious Liberty

December 1, 2023

By Frank DeVito

In 2022, when a draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opinion was leaked to the media, the New York state government passed a series of laws related to abortion. These laws particularly targeted pregnancy centers that do not offer abortion services and so affected many religious organizations that minister to women in crisis pregnancies. The Sisters of Life, a community of religious sisters who take vows to protect human life, filed a lawsuit in response and succeeded in protecting their religious liberty.

What should you know about the facts of this case and how the Sisters of Life successfully fought this attack on their religious mission? How can you respond if you ever find yourself in a similar situation? Read on to understand the basics of this case and what you can learn to protect your own organization in the future.

Basics of the Case

In June 2022, New York enacted a state law that attempted to give the health commissioner power to request intrusive data from “limited service pregnancy centers,” which specifically targets those pregnancy centers that do not provide “abortion care.” The law allows the state to request a broad array of information: demographic information about the women that come to the pregnancy center, the services provided, what options or services the women are seeking, and what information the pregnancy center is giving to women who receive services.

Two problematic issues arose from this law. First, the intrusive information the state could seek from these pregnancy centers would make vulnerable women less likely to come to the centers. Knowing that a visit to a crisis pregnancy center could lead to the government asking for sensitive information about the woman and the visit would likely cause many women to reconsider visiting the pregnancy center at all. Second, this law did not empower the government to seek such information from clinics that offer abortion. The law clearly targeted religious organizations with a mission to affirm the dignity of life by helping pregnant women without offering abortion services.

The Sisters of Life, through their attorneys at Becket, first sent letters to the New York authorities unsuccessfully asking for assurances that this law would not be enforced against the Sisters of Life. The Sisters then filed a lawsuit in September 2022.

After more than a year of litigation delays that left the Sisters of Life in uncertainty, the State of New York signed a stipulation filed on November 8, 2022. The stipulation, which ended the lawsuit in the Sisters’ favor, includes an agreement under which the state will not request any data from the Sisters of Life or take any enforcement action under the statute.  

Takeaways For Your Organization

What can your organization learn from the Sisters of Life victory in this case?

  1. Some Laws Are Bold Enough to Explicitly Target Religious Organizations and Beliefs

The New York law at issue in this case was not a generally applicable law that happened to affect crisis pregnancy centers. Rather, the law did not apply to abortion providers and specifically targeted crisis pregnancy centers that do not provide abortion services.  

From cases like Sisters of Life v. McDonald, as well as other recent religious liberty victories like Bella Health v. Colorado (read more about that case here), religious organizations should be aware that states are passing laws that openly target religious organizations.  

  1. Think About What Areas of Your Ministry Might Make You Vulnerable to Targeted Laws

Whether laws targeting religious organizations will affect your organization depends on your organization’s particular mission and the services you provide.  

As the cases above demonstrate, if your organization offers crisis pregnancy services, know that states have begun targeting particular types of services – such as prescribing progesterone in an attempt to reverse the affect of the abortion pill – as well as enacting burdensome laws requiring pregnancy centers to disclose sensitive information to the government.  

If your organization runs a faith-based private school, you may be affected by laws limiting or prohibiting government funds for religious schools.  

By keeping an eye on the development of these types of laws and thinking about what aspects of your mission are “controversial” in the modern secular climate, you can be in a better position to anticipate what laws might be passed that will affect your organization in the future.

For additional information on the protections afforded to religious organizations and how you can protect your organization, check out Napa Legal’s latest whitepaper on religious liberty here.

  1. Know That Help and a Path to Victory are Available!

The Sisters of Life case should serve as a sign of hope. We should be hopeful that courts are willing to properly enforce the First Amendment and ensure that laws targeting religious practice will not be unfairly and unconstitutionally enforced against faith-based nonprofits. And the successful legal representation provided by Becket in both Sisters of Life v. McDonald and Bella Health v. Colorado should give faith-based nonprofits hope that help is available in these situations. It is important that laws targeting religious practice are not merely accepted. Action is possible and action should be taken!

If you find that a law targeting your organization’s religious mission is on the horizon or has been passed into law, please reach out to the team at Napa Legal to see if you can be referred to an attorney who can help protect your religious liberty. And to learn more about some of the excellent organizations that are helping defend religious liberty across the country, check out the following links:

Public Interest Law Firm Legal Inquiry Forms


American Center for Law and Justice


First Liberty

Pacific Justice Institute

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