ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI – Fourteen clergy from seven faith traditions largely won an important ruling in their lawsuit Friday challenging Missouri’s abortion ban and restrictions on medication abortion, all of which unconstitutionally impose one narrow religious doctrine on all Missouri residents and violate the separation of church and state. Judge Jason Sengheiser ruled that all of the clergy have sufficiently demonstrated standing at this stage of the litigation to bring the lawsuit and can proceed to litigate the case.
The court allowed the clergy to move forward with their challenges to the total abortion ban and medication abortion regulations, though it dismissed challenges to other restrictions that collectively decimated abortion access in the state even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. The court also concluded that several local prosecutors should not be defendants in the case, but this does not prevent the case from proceeding. The court rejected all of Missouri’s other arguments against the lawsuit, including the arguments based on the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions.
Ruling a “great first step” toward restoring religious & reproductive freedom
“We largely prevailed and can now litigate our case, which will strike this abortion ban down as a violation of the separation of church and state,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “We need a national recommitment to the separation of church and state – that will protect both religious freedom and reproductive freedom. This ruling is a great first step.”
“We applaud the court’s decision allowing our challenges to Missouri’s harmful and unconstitutional total abortion ban and restrictions on medication abortion to proceed,” said Michelle Banker, Director of Reproductive Rights and Health Litigation at the National Women’s Law Center. “But we are disappointed that the court stopped short of hearing our challenge to the many other medically unnecessary restrictions which made abortion inaccessible to so many long before Roe was overturned. So while this decision is certainly a victory that we celebrate, it is a reminder that it will take all of us, and every tool we have, to meaningfully restore abortion access in Missouri.”
Faith leaders: Missouri abortion bans violate state constitution’s promise of church-state separation
The lawsuit, Rev. Traci Blackmon v. State of Missouri, was filed in January during a week that began with National Religious Freedom Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day and ended with what would have been the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. These faith leaders felt it critical to challenge the Missouri abortion bans, which violate religious freedom and the state constitution’s promise of church-state separation.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and the law firm Arnold & Porter represent the fourteen members of the clergy, whose various faiths call them to support abortion access because of the critical importance it holds for the health, autonomy, economic security, and equality of women and all who can become pregnant. Religious traditions represented by the plaintiffs include Baptist, Episcopalian, Orthodox Judaism, United Church of Christ, Reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalism and United Methodist. One plaintiff is also a state legislator.
Missouri lawmakers enshrined their personal religious beliefs about abortion into law
The lawsuit demonstrates that Gov. Michael Parson and the Missouri Legislature violated the state constitution by enshrining their personal religious beliefs about abortion into law when they enacted several abortion bans as part of House Bill No. 126, as well as earlier laws that destroyed abortion access in the state. One of the bans in H.B. 126 was a “trigger ban” that prohibited all abortions following the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. Lawmakers openly and repeatedly emphasized they were writing their religious beliefs into the abortion bans, even declaring in the bill itself that “Almighty God is the author of life” – a phrase that an opposing lawmaker noted was “in violation of the separation of church and state.” Legislators said they passed the ban because:
- “to me God doesn’t give us a choice in this area. He is the Creator of life.”
- “being from the Biblical side of it, I’ve always believed that life does occur at the point of conception.”
- “Life begins at conception. Psalms 119 says …”
- “as a Catholic I do believe life begins at conception. That is built into our legislative findings currently in law…”
(Examples of legislators’ remarks about their religious motivations to ban abortion are available here.)
Faith leader plaintiffs
- Rev. Traci Blackmon, Associate General Minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries for the United Church of Christ
- Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Executive Director, Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis
- Rabbi Doug Alpert, Congregation Kol Ami, Kansas City
- Rev. Jan Barnes, United Church of Christ, Webster Groves (retired)
- Rabbi Jim Bennett, Congregation Shaare Emeth, Creve Coeur
- Rev. Cindy Bumb, United Church of Christ, St. Louis (retired)
- Rabbi Andrea Goldstein, Congregation Shaare Emeth, Creve Coeur
- Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia
- Rev. Darryl Gray, Greater Fairfax Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis
- The Rt. Rev. Deon K. Johnson, Eleventh Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri
- Rev. Holly McKissick, Peace Church United Church of Christ, Kansas City
- Rev. Barbara Phifer, retired United Methodist minister and State Representative in District 90
- Rabbi Susan Talve, Central Reform Congregation, St. Louis
- Rev. Krista Taves, Eliot Unitarian Chapel, Kirkwood, and First Unitarian Church, Alton, Ill.
(Additional information about the plaintiffs, including photos and remarks, is available here.)
In addition to the State of Missouri, the defendants named in the lawsuit included state and local officials responsible for enforcing or ensuring compliance with the abortion ban, including Missouri Gov. Michael L. Parson; Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey; a class of all the municipal prosecuting attorneys statewide; Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services Acting Director Paula F. Nickelson; and several officials at the Missouri State Board of Registration for the Healing Arts.
Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.
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