Restoring abortion access is not the only reason 14 Missouri faith leaders joined a lawsuit filed by Americans United and the National Women’s Law Center to challenge the state’s abortion bans as a violation of church-state separation.
“I also hope that this lawsuit helps change the public narrative around religion and abortion,” said the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, Mo., and a plaintiff. “It is not the case that the religious point of view is to oppose abortion. That is really far from the case.
“I want to challenge the assumption that religious people oppose abortion. I am a deeply faithful person, and I joyfully support abortion access,” Housh Gordon added.
Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, an Orthodox Jewish plaintiff and executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, voiced similar motivations.
“I hope that this lawsuit really starts a conversation about what faith means today, that this is not something that is solely defined by a small group of people who want to [see] their religious tradition enacted into law,” said Picker Neiss. “There are people of deep and profound faith across traditions and across this country who have wide-ranging views” about abortion.
Although the popular narrative is that religious people oppose abortion, studies show that’s far from the truth. “Majorities of most religious groups say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases,” reported the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in February following a months-long survey of nearly 23,000 Americans.
PRRI reported that the religious groups in which a majority of respondents support abortion include several Protestant groups (including white mainline, Black and other Protestants of color), Catholics, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Religiously unaffiliated respondents also strongly support abortion; they tied with Unitarian Universalists as the most supportive, at 85%.
Only four of the 16 religious groups identified by PRRI had less than 50% of respondents supporting abortion: white evangelical Protestants (27%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (27%), Latter-day Saints (32%) and Hispanic Protestants (44%). Similarly, those groups are most likely to say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases; no other religious group reached a majority in support of abortion bans.
“Support for banning the procedure is not popular at all with most Americans, not even Republicans,” Melissa Deckman, CEO of PRRI, told Religion News Service. States where lawmakers are trying to enact near-total bans on abortion, she added, are not in line with “where most residents are in their views.”
That includes Missouri. PRRI found that 59% of Missourians believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And yet, Missouri lawmakers enacted a total abortion ban that went into effect hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and abolished the constitutional, nationwide right to abortion on June 24, 2022. While Missouri’s law allegedly has limited exceptions that permit an abortion if the pregnant person’s life is at risk, there have already been reports of people denied emergency abortion care in life-threatening situations. There are no legal exceptions for cases of rape, incest or a non-viable fetus.
Not only did Missouri lawmakers enact a draconian abortion ban that is contrary to the will of the people, but in doing so, legislators were explicit in their intent to impose their own narrow religious views on all Missourians. In the most recent anti-abortion bill — the trigger ban passed in 2019 that went into effect when Roe fell last year — lawmakers wrote into the law itself that “Almighty God is the author of life.”
AU’s lawsuit also challenges several other older anti-abortion laws. “The Missouri Legislature has been encoding religious beliefs about abortion into Missouri statutes for almost 40 years,” the lawsuit states.
Last month, AU and allies expanded the case to include a 1986 law that was co-written by the Missouri Catholic Conference and was passed as part of an omnibus anti-abortion bill. The law codifies the unscientific, religious belief that the “life of each human being begins at conception” and requires that all subsequent Missouri laws — including others challenged in the lawsuit — rely on this inherently religious theory of when life begins.
Not only are their anti-abortion views contrary to those of the majority of Missouri residents and the rest of the country, but Missouri legislators’ use of religion to justify those laws also is an outlier, according to PRRI’s study.
“Although many of the arguments about abortion revolve around religion, less than a third of Americans overall (31%) agree with the statement ‘my religious faith dictates my views on abortion,’” PRRI reported. The only religious group to disagree with that statement is white evangelical Protestants — nearly three-fourths said they look to their religious beliefs to determine their opinions on abortion.
Even though white evangelicals make up only about a quarter of the U.S. population, they’ve had an outsize influence on politicizing abortion and other “culture war” issues. That wasn’t always the case. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) adopted resolutions in 1971 (pre-Roe in 1973) and again in 1974 and 1976 that supported permissive abortion legislation. The Baptist Press reported that, in 1977, the longtime head of the SBC’s ethics commission joined four seminary professors in signing a statement that affirmed Roe and supported government funding of abortions for the poor.
“White evangelicals in the 1970s did not mobilize against Roe v. Wade, which they considered a Catholic issue,” Randall Balmer wrote in Politico last year. Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right. “They organized instead to defend racial segregation in evangelical institutions, including Bob Jones University.”
Balmer described what he calls the “abortion myth” — “the fiction that the genesis of the Religious Right — the powerful evangelical political movement that has reshaped American politics over the past four decades — lay in opposition to abortion.”
As Balmer and many other scholars have pointed out, racial segregation was the real galvanizing force that began to spur evangelicals to merge into the political juggernaut that became the Religious Right. They were mobilized when the IRS began cracking down and revoking tax-exempt status for religious groups’ segregationist academies in the 1970s.
But Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist and architect of the Religious Right, realized that it was bad PR to have their movement centered around racism. In the lead-up to the 1980 presidential election, he witnessed the grassroots mobilizing of anti-abortion activists. Around the same time, the anti-abortion film “How Should We Then Live?” by fundamentalist preacher Francis Schaeffer was beginning to gain ground with evangelicals. Weyrich and other Religious Right leaders shifted their focus to opposing abortion — a decision that was more political than it was religious.
The Religious Right for decades has overshadowed the myriad of faith voices that support abortion rights. Largely forgotten is the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a network of clergy that formed in 1967 before Roe to help people obtain safe abortions (legal and illegal) from licensed medical professionals. In a 2017 retrospective, TIME magazine reported the network grew to include more than 2,000 clergy and estimated it had helped at least 250,000, and perhaps as many as a half-million, people obtain abortions in the half-decade before Roe. TIME reported that clergy in the network preached from the pulpit in support of abortion access, and even went to court to challenge anti-abortion laws.
It’s a tradition that continues today.
“As a Progressive Baptist, the freedom to determine one’s own life path is central to my faith,” said the Rev. Darryl Gray, pastor at Greater Fairfax Missionary Baptist Church, one of St. Louis’ oldest Black congregations, when he joined AU’s lawsuit in March. “Missouri’s abortion bans restrict this freedom by preventing pregnant people from making their own decisions about their bodies and lives in accordance with their faith.
“The abortion bans also codify a theological belief about conception that does not align with my religious beliefs,” Gray added. “This is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. No interpretation of the Bible or any other religious text should be enshrined into law or used to restrict the rights of all Missourians.”