Laws banning or restricting abortion access impose one narrow religious belief on everyone bound by those laws, including those whose religions counsel in favor of abortion access. Americans United and the National Women’s Law Center represent fourteen clergy members in Missouri across seven denominations who support abortion access because of their faith, not in spite of it. Together, we argue that Missouri’s abortion bans violate their state constitution’s guarantee of absolute separation of church and state.
In 2019, Missouri state legislators passed H.B. 126, a bill imposing numerous abortion restrictions on Missouri residents in the name of “Almighty God.” The bill established a trigger ban on virtually all abortions that was set to go into effect if Roe v. Wade was overturned, as well as cascading abortion bans at 8, 14, 18, and 20 weeks and a ban on abortions sought for certain reasons. On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center, which overturned Roe, and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt proclaimed that same day that Missouri’s total abortion ban was effective immediately.
On the floor of the Missouri House of Representatives, state legislators defended H.B. 126 in overtly religious terms. Rep. Holly Thompson Rehder stated, “God doesn’t give us a choice in this area. He is the Creator of life.” The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Nick Schroer, said, “I’ll say this again, as a Catholic I do believe life begins at conception, that is built into our legislative findings currently in law.” And even after Rep. Ian Mackey pointed out that the religious language in the bill was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state, Rep. Adam Schnelting stated, “I know of no greater way of affirming the natural rights of man than to declare that they are a gift from our Creator that neither man nor government can abridge.”
Earlier Missouri abortion restrictions passed in 2014 and 2017 had already drastically curtailed abortion access in the state. In 2014, H.B. 1307 imposed a 72-hour delay on abortions, requiring individuals seeking abortion care to make two trips at least three days apart—taking time away from work, school, family, and other commitments and imposing greater travel costs. In 2017, S.B. 5 imposed restrictions on medication abortions (which today account for over half of all abortions in the United States) and an additional, medically unnecessary requirement that the same physician who provides the abortion must also provide information to the individual seeking an abortion at least 72 hours beforehand. And back in 1986, the Missouri legislature passed a bill stating that all Missouri laws “shall be interpreted and construed” in line with the religious belief that the “life of each human being begins at conception.” Together, these restrictions significantly limited the ability of thousands of Missourians to obtain abortion care. Legislators defended these restrictions in religious terms as well, repeatedly invoking the religious belief that life begins at conception, even after hearing testimony from a rabbi explaining how abortion restrictions infringe on Jewish understandings of life and health.
Our plaintiffs, who represent several denominations within Christianity, as well as Judaism and Unitarian Universalism, object to the Missouri legislature’s giving these sweeping religious statements the force of law. Rev. Traci Blackmon, a United Church of Christ minister, aims to be part of the legacy of the UCC—which voted in 1971 to acknowledge the right to abortion—by supporting reproductive decision-making and helping people obtain access to abortion care. Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, an Orthodox Jewish clergy member, says that Jewish law is clear that a fetus is not given the same value, status, or consideration as that of a living person until such time as it has taken its first breath outside the womb. Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Columbia, describes Missouri’s abortion restrictions as entirely at odds with her religious beliefs, practice, and ministry because they establish into law a religious belief about when life begins that directly conflicts with her own religious beliefs and understanding of conscience and bodily autonomy.
In enacting H.B. 126 and the earlier restrictions, the Missouri legislature did not fulfill its duty to represent the diverse views of Missouri’s citizens. Instead, it unconstitutionally imposed one narrow religious belief as law. That is why on Thursday, January 19, 2023, just shy of the fiftieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22, we filed a Complaint in Missouri state court challenging the state’s abortion restrictions as a violation of Missouri’s constitutional provisions that protect the separation of church and state. On March 14, 2023, we amended our complaint to include Progressive Baptist Rev. Darryl Gray as the 14th clergy plaintiff challenging these laws.
The court held its first hearing in the case on June 13, 2023, where AU Litigation Fellow Kalli Joslin argued against a motion to dismiss the lawsuit that the defendant state officials had filed. On June 30, 2023, the court largely rejected the state’s arguments and allowed our core claims to proceed.
On September 20, 2023, the defendant state officials filed a motion arguing that they are entitled to prevail in the case without further proceedings. We filed our opposition to this motion on October 27. Joslin presented oral argument opposing the motion at a hearing on November 16.