A federal appeals court in New York yesterday upheld a contempt-of-court ruling against the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, who refuse to release subpoenaed records sought by an abortion-rights coalition.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in a 2-to-1 decision, set the clock ticking again on a $100,000-a-day fine against the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and its service arm, the U.S. Catholic Conference.
The church has a 20-day grace period in which to appeal or to turn over the documents before the daily fine is levied.
Yesterday's ruling grows out of a suit filed in 1981 by the Abortion Rights Mobilization, seeking to lift the bishops' tax exemption because of their involvement in antiabortion politics.
The abortion rights group charged that the church illegally supported antiabortion candidates in the 1980 election.
The fine was imposed in May 1985 by U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Carter, who cited church officials for contempt after they refused to surrender subpoenaed church documents ranging from minutes of internal policy dis- cussions to local parish bulle- tins. The fine was stayed pending the appeal.
In New York, Lawrence Lader, coordinator of the Abortion Rights Mobilization, said he was "very pleased" by yesterday's ruling. "We can go right to trial" on the merits of the case, he said.
A spokesman for the bishops' conference in Washington said, "The conference is very disappointed by this ruling" and he said the bishops will appeal the matter to the Supreme Court.
"The issues at stake here are of concern not just to the Catholic Church," he said.
The spokesman said the case "involves the right of all churches and religious groups to express their views on public issues without harrassment by groups which disagree with them or by the federal government."
The case, and particularly the broad subpoena for internal church documents, has set off alarms in other church groups, many of which differ with the Catholic position on abortion, over how far the government can inquire into church affairs.
An ad hoc coalition of eight church organizations, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the National Council of Churches, last year filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Roman Catholic organizations.
The right of churches "to preach, teach and seek to persuade others to follow what they believe to be the moral course for the nation . . . should have nothing to do with the church's tax exemption," said the Rev. Dean M. Kelley, church-state expert for the National Council of Churches.