February 2024 Church & State Magazine - February 2024

Accelerating activism: Americans United steps up its efforts to protect reproductive freedom in Missouri and other states

  Liz Hayes

Missouri continues to be a focal point for abortion activism and Americans United has been a key player in the multi-faceted campaign to restore abortion access to the state, which has one the nation’s strictest abortion bans.

The latest news out of Missouri came on Jan. 19 when Missourians for Constitutional Freedom announced it will mount a ballot initiative campaign this year to give voters the opportunity to amend the state’s constitution to include the right to an abortion up to the point of viability, usually considered to be 24 weeks into a pregnancy. If successful, Missouri would follow in the footsteps of California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Vermont, where voters in the past two years have cast ballots in favor of abortion rights.

The announcement came after months of overcoming legal roadblocks from Missouri’s anti-abortion secretary of state, Jay Ashcroft (R).

“In recent times, this country has experienced many dark days with regard to the right to an abortion,” AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said. “But today we are inspired by the light shining bright in the state of Missouri and the announcement of a ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the Missouri Constitution.”

The coalition leading the effort, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, Abortion Action Missouri, Planned Parenthood Great Plains and other in-state abortion-rights groups, has until May 5 to collect about 172,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot. Gov. Michael Parson (R) then would be required to schedule the voter referendum, which could happen during the Aug. 6 state primary election or the Nov. 5 general election.

“We see a path to victory regardless of when we’re placed on the ballot,” Tori Schafer, the ACLU of Missouri’s deputy director for policy and campaigns, told NBC News. “We believe that decisions around pregnancy, including abortion, birth control and miscarriage care, are personal and private, and that they should be left up to patients and their families.”

A ballot initiative is one of several efforts to restore abortion access in Missouri, where a “trigger” ban went into effect when the U.S. Supreme Court’s ultraconservative bloc overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, abolishing the nationwide right to abortion.

AU’s lawsuit challenging Missouri’s ban as a violation of the separation of church and state is a major part of those efforts. Rev. Blackmon v. State of Missouri was filed in January 2023 on behalf of 14 Missouri faith leaders from seven denominations whose various faiths call them to support abortion access. Along with AU, the legal team includes the National Women’s Law Center, the law firm Arnold & Porter and St. Louis-based civil rights attorney Denise Lieberman.

At Church & State’s press time, AU and allies were awaiting a decision in the case stemming from a Nov. 16 court hearing in St. Louis, during which the state again attempted to have the case dismissed. The Blackmon legal team defeated a similar motion last June when the court granted the clergy permission to move forward with their case.

The morning of the November hearing, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey (R) was interviewed by 93.9 The Eagle, a talk radio station in the city of Columbia, and lied about the identity of the plaintiffs and their motivations for bringing the suit.

“It’s important to understand who the plaintiff is here, and it’s the Church of Satan,” Bailey said. He asserted that the plaintiffs have “declared that their religious right to kill babies has been violated by Missouri’s heartbeat bill.”

The faith leader plaintiffs penned an op-ed column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to correct the record: “We agree that ‘it’s important to understand’ who we are and what we’re fighting for in court, but our state’s chief legal officer doesn’t seem to understand these basics, and we were sad to hear him mislead Missourians so recklessly,” they wrote.

“We are fourteen members of clergy representing seven different religious denominations including Baptist, Episcopalian, Orthodox Judaism, United Church of Christ, Reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalism and United Methodist. These are all mainline faith traditions with millions of adherents, including many Missourians that Bailey serves,” they continued. “While we cherish religious freedom and are fighting for everyone’s right to believe, or not, as they choose, none of us is affiliated with the Church of Satan.”

The column goes on to lay out the foundation of the case that Missouri lawmakers unconstitutionally imposed their personal religious beliefs on all Missourians when they enacted the trigger ban and other restrictions on abortion access. They wrote into the text of the law “Almighty God is the author of life” and that “the life of an individual human being begins at conception.” And during the debate over the bill, several legislators cited their religious beliefs to justify the ban.

“Our lawsuit is not seeking a special religious right, but rather a recognition of the existing constitutional right to the separation of church and state, so that one sect’s religious beliefs about abortion and when life begins are not imposed upon all others,” the clergy wrote in the Post-Dispatch. “The narrow and extreme religious beliefs of a vocal, politically powerful minority cannot be given the force of law.”

They concluded: “We fear that Bailey continues this unconstitutional tradition by using the power and prestige of a government office to label anyone who disagrees with his personal religious beliefs about pregnancy as ‘Satanic,’ especially when that has no basis in truth. Missourians deserve better, and we deserve an apology.”

Given that his office was in court the same day opposing the clergy, it’s hard to imagine Bailey didn’t know exactly who the plaintiffs were. Nor does it seem likely he was confusing AU’s case with a federal case filed more than five years ago by The Satanic Temple (not the Church of Satan) to challenge previous abortion restrictions as a violation of religious freedom. That case was dismissed by a federal appeals court in 2020.

AU’s efforts in Missouri also include working with local faith leaders and abortion activists to educate Missourians on the importance of abortion access and church-state separation, and to encourage them to join the fight for both. Called the Missouri Abortion Access Project, organizing efforts have included trainings on how to have more effective conversations about abortion and religious freedom and discussions on the threat of Christian Nationalism.

AU Vice President of Outreach and Engagement Brian Silva and National Organizer and Student Network Manager Alicia Johnson have been among those leading the organizing efforts.

AU’s Brian Silva and the Rev. Lori Walke: Abortion is a church-state issue

“The courts have shown us that we can no longer assume wins will maintain precedent,” Silva said. “That’s why we also organize before and after a case to build public opposition to any attempt by courts or legislators to impose their own narrow religious beliefs on all of us in law and that includes abortion bans.”

AU also collaborated with the creators of “Focus on Abortion,” a powerful photojournalism exhibit about abortion, to include displays featuring AU’s Missouri case and to find sponsor sites for the exhibit. “Focus on Abortion” aims to encourage thoughtful conversations and reflection around the often-polarizing subject of abortion through photos and stories of people who have had abortions, as well as their partners, health care providers and others. Each person in the project is represented by a photographic portrait and a first-person narrative.

AU so far has worked with houses of worship in Missouri, New Mexico and Oklahoma to host the exhibit. One of the most recent host sites of both the “Focus on Abortion” exhibit and one of AU’s abortion messaging trainings was Mayflower Congregational UCC Church in Oklahoma City, where the Rev. Dr. Lori Walke, a member of AU’s Faith Advisory Counsel, is senior minister.

AU’s Laser stressed that it’s imperative to continue talking about the importance of abortion rights and church-state separation even in parts of the country considered to be less than supportive of both.

“The right to an abortion should not depend on where you live; we must never give up on protecting abortion rights in the ‘red’ states,” Laser said. “That’s why Americans United sued on behalf of 14 Missouri faith leaders to overturn the state’s abortion ban. We’re also honored to co-lead the Missouri Abortion Access Project, educating and encouraging Missourians to fight for abortion rights, which are essential to protecting religious freedom.

“Abortion bans impose one narrow religious view on all of us. They violate religious and reproductive freedom and put lives at risk,” Laser added. “Americans United is proud to work with the tireless advocates on the ground in Missouri, including many faith leaders, to restore abortion access across the state. Now is the time for a national recommitment to the separation of church and state.”

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