By Tatiana Wolkowitz
In the past year, attacks by far-right lawmakers and judges on reproductive freedom and LGBTQ+ rights have continued to chip away at the separation of church and state that is meant to promote freedom of religion, choice and identity.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade and subsequent abortion bans that were passed or took effect in states like Missouri, the unprecedented amount of legislation attacking LGBTQ+ people and especially trans people, along with the recent Supreme Court ruling in 303 Creative prove that now, more than ever, our ability to live as ourselves as believe as we choose hinges on the success of the church-state separation movement.
The nexus between reproductive freedom and church-state separation
Before starting my summer internship with Americans United, my education and advocacy background was mostly rooted in reproductive justice. In the past several weeks, my shift in understanding church-state separation as not only related, but crucial, to reproductive freedom has been tremendous. My personal understanding of the church-state separation movement’s shared values with the reproductive justice movement expanded and ultimately enhanced my advocacy for both. I began to realize that there is a long history of overlap and partnership between these two movements that I am so passionate about, and I believe a strong understanding of both makes our advocacy stronger.
The reproductive justice movement evolved from the women’s rights and pro-choice movements that dominated mainstream conversations surrounding reproductive policy and advocacy. Reproductive justice pioneers such as Loretta Ross recognized that the experiences of women of color were too often omitted from these political and legislative spaces. Coined by Black women in 1994, “reproductive justice” describes the “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” The reproductive justice movement is radically intersectional and recognizes that collective liberation is the only pathway to individual freedom.
Since its founding over 75 years ago, AU has been involved in advocacy for reproductive freedom. This work can be traced back to the 1950s and ’60s when birth control was illegal in several states and health care providers could be prosecuted for providing married couples with information about contraceptive options. AU partnered with women’s rights groups to combat these laws, particularly in regions of the country where conservative Catholic lawmakers were imposing their beliefs on others. Over the subsequent decades, AU’s advocacy for reproductive rights only grew with its involvement in the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services Supreme Court case. AU challenged Missouri’s 1989 anti-abortion legislation by filing a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the law’s language was so rooted in religion that it should be invalidated.
AU challenges Missouri’s anti-abortion laws
More recently, AU filed a lawsuit challenging Missouri’s unconstitutional abortion bans in partnership with the National Women’s Law Center on behalf of plaintiffs who represent 14 clergy from seven different denominations. The plaintiffs include an Episcopal bishop, an orthodox Jewish maharat, a United Methodist pastor (who is also a state legislator), as well as Reform Jewish rabbis and United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist ministers. Efforts by church-state separation and reproductive freedom organizations alike lift up the voices of faith leaders and allow both movements to reach and mobilize crucial communities in the fight for collective freedom.
As an advocate for reproductive justice who didn’t always make the connection to church-state separation, it’s powerful to see the roles that a wide range of organizations play to advance shared values of equality and freedom for all and contribute to stronger, more diverse movements. Organizations such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and Catholics for Choice work with faith leaders to promote reproductive freedom in religious communities and mobilize faith communities to advocate for change. Other organizations like the Tennessee-based SisterReach advocate through a reproductive justice lens by building the power of Black voters, providing direct services to the community and educating and advocating at the intersections of faith, religion and social justice. By rooting its social justice strategy in the intersectional, grassroots approach central to the reproductive justice movement, organizations like SisterReach empower communities to fight for their liberties by centering the voices of the most marginalized and fostering community-focused impact.
Building partnerships for victory
Our country’s current reality is one of religiously motivated Supreme Court decisions and bans on reproductive health services, making it clearer than ever that inter-movement partnership only enhances the fights for church-state separation and reproductive justice. By fostering networks of committed religious, non-religious, racial justice, education, LGBTQ+ and other organizations committed to using their strengths and resources to promote a shared vision for religious and reproductive freedom, our movements become one step closer to realizing shared goals.
Just as my understanding and involvement with the church-state separation movement has enhanced my reproductive justice advocacy, learning about the reproductive justice movement can only serve to strengthen our collective fight for religious freedom. By continuing to work hand-in-hand, we come closer to inter-movement success and achieving the change we want to see.