“Thank you for giving us something to say yes to.”
I’ll never forget what one of our clergy plaintiffs said as we circled up and held hands at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, on the 19th of January, just moments before the press conference began. We were about to publicly announce our lawsuit, brought with the National Women’s Law Center, local counsel Denise Lieberman and the law firm Arnold & Porter, challenging Missouri’s abortion ban as a violation of the state constitution’s church-state separation protections. A dozen of our clergy plaintiffs were able to be there in person. I couldn’t contain my tears as I thanked them for their courage and leadership. For me, this circle, solemn because of why we were there but bursting with love for each other and hope for our country, was a highlight of the day.
The press conference itself couldn’t have gone better. The powerful line up of clergy represented branches of Christianity, Judaism and Unitarianism and different geographic parts of the state. The clergy were Black and white, straight and queer, and some had had an abortion themselves. Each of the clergy explained how abortion bans impose one narrow religious viewpoint on everyone and violate religious freedom. And they beautifully championed church-state separation as foundational to our country and our freedoms. Our lead plaintiff, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, even quoted Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, praising the religious freedom protections in our Constitution for “building a wall of separation between Church & State”!
My other favorite part of the day was the march to the courthouse steps. We all linked arms and sang Civil Rights-era songs, culminating in a round of “We Shall Overcome” when we reached our destination. We sang because Jan. 16 had been the observance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and National Religious Freedom Day, and the Sunday coming up, Jan. 22, marked what should have been the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Roe v. Wade decision. And we sang because, as during the Civil Rights era, we were marching for freedom (reproductive and religious!) and resisting an opposition trying to hold America back from her steady march toward equality. Yes, it was cold and windy in St. Louis on Jan. 19, but I felt warm inside, knowing that I was there representing our hundreds of thousands of supporters across the country.
We brought this lawsuit because we must use every tool we can to restore abortion rights and religious freedom. At this scary moment of emboldened religious extremism, we must bring “church-state separation” back into the national lexicon. We must say these words again and again, which is why it has been so gratifying hearing the clergy in our lawsuit and our partner, the National Women’s Law Center, centering the framework of how abortion bans violate church-state separation. It’s why, when we all came together for a picture at the church, I couldn’t help but start a chant. “Separate!” I called out; “church and state!” they responded. I couldn’t get enough.
We will not succeed in protecting church-state separation unless we also fight back against our opponents’ mislabeling of this principle as “anti-Christian” and “anti-religion.” This lawsuit, with its visual of the church and the many clergy plaintiffs wearing clerical collars and robes, kippahs and other religious garb, certainly proves them wrong.
Legal challenges like this one are a critical part of igniting a national recommitment to church-state separation. Their power comes from the fact that our entire organization works closely together for many months to bring them to fruition. In this case, AU’s Legal Department did the careful research and incredible drafting that makes this case strong and tight. Our Outreach and Engagement Department ensured that we’re partnering closely with Missourians on the ground across the state. And our Communications Department didn’t just alert the media, they also created fantastic video and photographic footage, including a celebrity video supporting our case, to fill many channels of social media with the news. Our Public Policy Department provided valuable advice about the lawsuit’s possible political ramifications, and the Development and Operations Departments, the careful stewards of the funds members like you provide, made sure we were financially prepared. When AU engages in collective efforts like this, the results are phenomenal.
We have a lot of work to do, but we are doing the work and doing it well — and that’s thanks to you!
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.