I recently opened up a copy of the Santa Fe New Mexican (the local paper where I’m currently working remotely) and was appalled to read the headline: “Baby boxes promoted as option for mothers: Conservatives say it’s a safe method for women to surrender newborns.”
Accompanying the article, which originally appeared in The New York Times, is a picture of a woman with a huge smile on her face standing at a fire station in front of a table with a structure resembling an oversized black mailbox reading “SafeHavenBabyBoxes.com” – as if “safe havens” are an alternative to abortion access, which was Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s preposterous take during the oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
Today’s America feels so distant from the one I grew up in and that my own parents and many of you fought so hard to realize. Of course, that America had major problems, but the difference is it felt like it was moving closer, instead of further from, its ideals. One of those ideals is church-state separation.
Americans United members have long understood that reproductive freedom is a church-state separation issue. AU started fighting for the right to contraception in the 1950s. In fact, many of our members came to our issue because of their commitment to abortion rights.
But the general population has not embraced this connection as readily. As recently as two years ago, AU’s public opinion research revealed that only a quarter of Americans understood the connection between abortion and church-state separation. This could be because religious extremists and their lawmaker allies learned to remove explicit religious language from their laws in order to avoid violating the Constitution.
But this thin disguise isn’t working as well anymore in this age of emboldened Christian nationalism, where the highest court in our land is advancing a religious extremist agenda.
The good news is, signs abound that people are waking up to the relationship between church-state separation and abortion rights.
Do a quick web search of “church-state separation” and you will find a spate of articles pointing out its connection to the loss of abortion rights, with headlines like “U.S. Supreme Court takes a hatchet to church-state separation” and “Under right-leaning Supreme Court, the church-state wall is crumbling.”
My own religious community – Jewish Americans – is talking a lot about how abortion bans impose a religious viewpoint on everyone. You have likely read about Rabbi Barry Silver’s lawsuit challenging Florida’s abortion ban. AU has had conversations with many Jewish groups also exploring lawsuits. A rabbi friend called me the other day to discuss church-state separation and abortion as he readied his Friday night sermon. For Jews, it’s easy to grasp that abortion bans violate religious freedom because they contradict Jewish law, which mandates abortion when the pregnancy puts your life at risk.
It’s not only Jews who are getting the connection. In Kansas, two nuns publicly opposed the abortion-related amendment to their state constitution on the grounds that it would allow politicians to “impose religious beliefs on all Kansans.”
A Kentucky judge blocked two abortion bans in his state from going into effect, in part because they adopt “a distinctly Christian and Catholic belief” about when life begins. “There is nothing in our laws or history that allows for such theocratic based policymaking,” wrote Judge Mitch Perry of the Jefferson County Circuit Court. (The decision was put on hold by an appeals court, but the matter is headed for the Kentucky Supreme Court.)
This moment is an ideal one for Americans United to drive home the point that church-state separation protects reproductive freedom. One way we will do this is by bringing our own litigation challenging abortion bans on religious freedom grounds. AU’s legal team is hard at work preparing these lawsuits right now.
AU is also getting ready to roll out a campaign calling for a national recommitment to church-state separation. This campaign will highlight the importance of church-state separation not just to abortion, but to so many other things Americans value (think contraception; equality for LGBTQ folks and religious and racial minorities; access to health care, jobs and social services; well-funded and strong public schools; science-based government policies; and so much more).
I’m calling on you to join AU in seizing this moment. Let’s make it clear to every reproductive freedom advocate – and supporters of a host of other causes – that they are also supporters of church-state separation.
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.