AU’s Top Ten of 2023: Abortion is a church-state separation issue

  Liz Hayes

Editor’s Note: This week “The Wall of Separation” blog continues to recount the top 10 church-state stories from 2023. Today we recap AU’s efforts to ensure people understand the connection between church-state separation and abortion rights.

It was not a coincidence that Americans United and our allies filed a lawsuit challenging Missouri’s abortion bans last January during the week that marked National Religious Freedom Day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Our primary goal with the lawsuit is to help restore abortion access for Missourians. But the case also allows us to demonstrate the connection between church-state separation and reproductive rights.

Missouri legislators enshrined their anti-abortion religious beliefs into law

When Missouri lawmakers passed House Bill 126 (which included a “trigger ban” prohibiting all abortions once the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022), they openly and repeatedly emphasized they were enshrining their religious beliefs into law. They wrote in the bill itself that “Almighty God is the author of life.” During legislative debate on the bill, they said the quiet part out loud and referenced their religious beliefs to justify the bans:

  • “to me God doesn’t give us a choice in this area. He is the Creator of life.”
  • “being from the Biblical side of it, I’ve always believed that life does occur at the point of conception.”
  • “Life begins at conception. Psalms 119 says …”
  • “as a Catholic I do believe life begins at conception. That is built into our legislative findings currently in law…”

Faith leader plaintiffs support abortion access

AU, alongside the National Women’s Law Center, the law firm Arnold & Porter and local counsel Denise Lieberman, represents 14 Missouri faith leaders from seven denominations who are challenging the state’s abortion ban as a violation of church-state separation. These clergy members’ various faiths call them to support abortion access because of the critical importance it holds for the health, autonomy, economic security and equality of women and all who can become pregnant.

“My God is a God of choice,” said lead plaintiff the Rev. Traci Blackmon, then the associate general minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ, and now a member of AU’s Board of Trustees. “In the United Church of Christ, we believe that God intended people to have autonomy over their lives and bodies, and to have authority to make complex decisions, including whether to have an abortion. Missouri’s abortion bans are an unconscionable abuse of religion to oppress all Missourians.”

“Missouri’s abortion bans contradict, devalue and disrespect my religious beliefs that the life and health of a pregnant person take precedence over a fetus,” said plaintiff Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. “The claim that life begins at conception is a statement of theological belief, and that belief is explicitly not a Jewish one.”

AU’s Rachel Laser: ‘Abortion bans violate the separation of church and state’

AU President and CEO Rachel Laser has repeatedly made the case that abortion bans violate church-state separation and religious freedom. She said so in numerous interviews since we filed the Missouri case, as well as in her syndicated op-ed. Laser emphasized the point in the documentary “Under G-D,” which highlights Jewish resistance to abortion bans.

She also noted the religious-extremist, anti-abortion agenda at play in the latest abortion case now heading to the U.S. Supreme Court, FDA v. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine. The case involves a challenge to the decades-old FDA approval of mifepristone, a safe and effective drug used in medication abortions and miscarriage management.

“Abortion and contraception bans violate the separation of church and state by enshrining one narrow religious viewpoint into our law,” Laser said. “If America is to make good on its promise of religious freedom, each of us must be free to make our own decisions about our own bodies based on our own beliefs. That’s why we need a national recommitment to the separation of church and state. It’s the shield that protects freedom without favor and equality without exception for all of us.”

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