United States Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization, Inc.

487 U. S. 72

June 20, 1988

An abortion rights group sued the IRS to get the Roman Catholic Church’s tax exempt status revoked. It served a subpoena on the United States Catholic Conference, demanding evidence to be used in the suit. The Catholic Conference refused, and the court held them in contempt. The Conference challenged the contempt on the grounds that the court had no subject matter jurisdiction in the underlying suit. The question before the Supreme Court was whether a non-party witness could challenge a contempt ruling because of an alleged lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The Court ruled 8-1 that such a challenge could be mounted. As Kennedy explained, subject matter jurisdiction was absolutely fundamental to all workings of any Article III court. Without such jurisdiction, any and all actions of the court were absolutely void. An old precedent about grand juries was easily distinguished, and concerns that challenges to jurisdiction might be abused were brushed aside as irrelevant. Anyone, even a non-party witness, was allowed to point out that the court had no legal grounds for being in session. Marshall dissented, and did the ‘read what the lower court judge said’ thing in lieu of explaining why.

The Court’s decision was obviously correct; elementary in fact. The underlying legal dispute though, is the very face of evil. Not content with murdering babies, the abortion rights group was trying to cripple the Catholic Church for daring to speak up in defense of those babies. If anyone wants to know why Donald Trump has pledged to overturn the horrific Johnson amendment on religious involvement in politics, this is the reason why.

Civil politics is an intrinsically spiritual domain. The nation who uses its laws to honor God and do good is blessed. The nation who uses its laws to dishonor God and do evil is cursed. It is Christian churches, above all other organizations, who ought to be involved in civil politics the most. No other group is so well equipped to discern when a legal policy is murderous and reprobate. Back in the late 1960s, when states first began legalization abortion for rape, incest, and birth defects, the Catholic Church stood almost alone in opposition. They alone perceived the beginning of a great genocide, and they alone raised the prophetic voice of alarm.

God will judge America one day for its legal system’s open embrace of sin. And God will also judge those who tried to cripple and silence the lonely voices in the wilderness who tried to fight back.

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