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Behind some of the most high-profile Supreme Court cases in the last decade is a conservative legal advocacy group that takes pride in their work against LGBT equality and reproductive justice – all in the name of religious liberty.
And they’re winning.
Becket Law, formerly the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, holds an 8-0 track record of Supreme Court cases since 2012. They served on counsel on several high-profile cases, including the 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, which granted businesses the right to deny employees healthcare that included contraception, and they filed an amicus brief in Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization, a landmark case which supported the overthrowing of the constitutional right to abortion.
Their latest quest is to question laws that protect abortion care providers and patients from harassment. After a Manhattan 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal rejected the challenge in June, Becket filed a petition with the Supreme Court last month that claims the 2000 Hill v. Colorado decision “is in stark contradiction of constitutional principles [the court] applies in all other contexts” outside of abortion.
They’re overturning laws that protect abortion care providers and patients
Becket’s latest petition, Vitagliano v. County of Westchester, seeks to rule buffer zone laws as unconstitutional, a feat they accomplished in Massachusetts in 2014.
Buffer zone laws act to protect abortion clinics by prohibiting protests within an allotted space of an establishment. Bubble zones work similarly, protecting several feet of space around a person within a specific distance of a clinic.
In Hill v. Colorado, SCOTUS upheld a law that banned approaching within eight feet of someone “for the purpose of engaging in oral protest, education, or counseling,” outside of an abortion clinic. Current buffer and bubble zone laws vary by city or state but essentially protect abortion care providers from physical harm and harassment.
According to Guttmacher, 14 states and the District of Columbia prohibit specific action, including threats and damage, aimed at providers.
“Just like buffer zones around a polling location protect voters from intimidation by political operatives lobbying them for a specific candidate, a buffer zone around an abortion clinic protects people from intimidation by those who oppose abortion as they’re walking up to the clinic,” explained Melissa Fowler, Chief Program Officer at the National Abortion Federation (NAF).
NAF’s 2022 Violence and Disruption Report revealed a spike in violence against abortion providers after Dobbs. Incidents of stalking were up 229%, from 28 cases in 2021 to 92 in 2022. There were also 4 reported arsons, 20 invasions, 4 bioterrorism threats, 43 burglaries,10 bomb threats and 218 death threats or threats of harm targeting providers last year alone.
“There’s a very real history of severe violence and harassment against providers and so we need to be taking measures to keep them safe,” said Fowler.
They use religious freedom ‘as a license to discriminate’
Becket proclaims itself the “leaders in the fight for religious liberty,” winning cases that allow businesses and adoption agencies from discriminating against the LGBT community on the basis of religious beliefs.
“They are trying to essentially use religious liberty as a license to discriminate, and we see that in their major cases,” said Shannon Russell, Directory of Policy at Catholics for Choice.
Catholics for Choice is a nonprofit fighting against religious-based opposition to reproductive healthcare, citing that they represent the pro-choice Catholic majority.
Although Becket is also a faith-based organization, Russell says the two groups have very different definitions of the right to religious freedom.
“When we’re talking about religious liberty, we mean the right to practice your faith, free from discrimination, but when they’re talking about religious liberty, it’s more about pursuing protections for large institutions and for right-wing beliefs,” explained Russell.
The line defining the separation of church and state grows thinner and thinner as more right-wing, religious parties influence laws to accommodate their beliefs, essentially weaponizing religion to eradicate existing reproductive healthcare policies.
They’re successfully infiltrating the U.S. political system
“Particularly in the case of the Trump administration, conservative organizations such as Becket were serving as a pipeline for HHS,” said Ashley Underwood, Director of Equity Forward, an organization that investigates groups and individuals heavily involved in the anti-abortion movement.
In fact, at least two Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials had ties to Becket during Trump’s tenure as president – former Office for Civil Rights Director Roger Severino and former HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
Russell explained how placing Becket-affiliated leaders in these roles progresses their agenda.
“A lot of times when [the] administration can’t get their policies passed through Congress, they will use the regulatory process,” Russell told Reckon. “So for instance, the Trump administration and Severino did that by doing these regulations around Sections 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, and also around refusals and denials of care based upon so-called religious or moral beliefs.”
Even with so much influence, Becket is not a household name and not many know about the organization. Underwood says this is a source of power.
“Most people won’t recognize them by name and it’s very much so by design.” She continued, “something that this movement really relies on is confusion.”
Russell says not recognizing these connections contributes to the anti-abortion ecosystem and beyond.
“It’s so incredibly important to share this information with folks because, you know, they might not realize how all of this is so interconnected, how attacks against abortion access and contraceptive access and LGBTQ people… are so related and how they’re being perpetuated by the same people,” Russell said. “They’re being funded by the same people.”