Faith leaders sue to overturn Missouri’s abortion ban, citing religious freedom
ST. LOUIS — More than a dozen faith leaders filed suit Thursday in St. Louis Circuit Court to overturn Missouri’s abortion ban, arguing state legislators acted based on their personal religious beliefs and violated the separation of church and state protected in Missouri’s Constitution.
The faith leaders, from St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia, represent several Protestant and Jewish denominations. They partnered with the National Women’s Law Center and Americans United for Separation of Church and State in drafting the suit.
“What these abortion restrictions do is enshrine into law the particular narrow religious beliefs of the state officials who enacted these laws, and it forces all of us to live by these narrow beliefs,” said Michelle Banker, the NWLC’s director of reproductive rights and health.
Missouri bans abortions except in cases of medical emergencies. Providers who violate the ban can be charged with a felony punishable by five to 15 years in prison, and lose their medical license
Missouri is among 14 states that have enacted laws either banning or greatly restricting access to abortion since the June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the constitutional right to abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Why is this lawsuit being filed in Missouri?
The state has long had an active group of clergy fighting for abortion access and robust laws protecting the separation of church and state, say those involved in the suit.
Legislators also openly invoked their personal religious beliefs as the reason for passing the abortion ban.
“Missouri is an easy first case because of the state’s strong commitment to churchstate separation, and because lawmakers said the quiet part out loud and made crystal clear that this ban is religiously motivated,” said Rachel Laser, president of Americans United.
The lawsuit lists several examples in which religious doctrine is mentioned.
Missouri’s law regulating abortions begins with, “In recognition that Almighty God is the author of life ... it is the intention of the General Assembly to defend the right to life of all humans, born and unborn.”
The law states that “the life of each human being begins at conception,” defined as the fertilization of the ovum by a sperm.
The lead sponsor of the bill banning abortion, then-Rep. Nick Schroer, a Republican from St. Charles County, argued that “as a Catholic, I do believe life begins at conception, and that is built into our legislative findings.” Schroer is now a member of the Missouri Senate.
Another co-sponsor, Rep. Barry Hovis, R-Cape Girardeau County, stated that “from the Biblical side of it ... life does occur at the point of conception.”
Rep. Ben Baker, R-Newton County, said, “From the onecell stage at the moment of conception, you were already there ... you equally share the image of our Creator.”
And then Rep. Holly Thompson Rehder, a Republican from Sikeston, urged passage of the ban by stating: “God doesn’t give us a choice in this area. He is the creator of life. And I, being made in His image and likeness, don’t get to choose to take that away, no matter how that child came to be. To me, life begins at conception, and my God doesn’t give that option.” Thompson Rehder is a state senator now.
Banker says the legislators showed their cards during their arguments.
“It makes Missouri a particularly special place to bring a suit like this,” she said. “It’s just so clear that these abortion bans were religiously motivated. The legislators were unequivocal about it.”
The conservative Christian notions of conception run contrary to the religious and moral beliefs of others, the lawsuit argues.
The 13 religious leaders filing the suit argue that their faith calls them to ensure abortion access because of how it affects a pregnant person’s autonomy, health, economic security and equality.
Among them are the Rev. Deon K. Johnson, the first openly gay Black bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. He follows the opinion of the Episcopal Church that the decision to have an abortion is personal one and “an integral part of a woman’s struggle to assert her dignity and worth as a human being.”
The Rev. Krista Taves, who serves as a minister at Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood and First Unitarian Church in Alton, said her faith places trust in an individual’s ability to make moral decisions about their bodies.
Rabbi Andrea Goldstein at the Shaare Emeth, the largest congregation for Reform Judaism in the St. Louis area, says her faith rejects the notion that abortion terminates human life and gives priority to the safety and well-being of the pregnant person.
“What our case really shows is that religion and support for abortion are not at odds. So many folks who support abortion do so because of their deeply held religious beliefs,” Banker said.