The legal team challenging Missouri abortion bans as a violation of the separation of church and state because they impose one narrow religious doctrine on all Missourians late yesterday added a 14th faith leader to the roster of clergy plaintiffs and expanded the challenge to encompass another anti-abortion law. Rev. Darryl Gray, a Progressive Baptist minister in St. Louis, joins thirteen clergy members from across the state 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.
The clergy are represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), the law firm Arnold & Porter and local civil rights attorney Denise Lieberman in the lawsuit Rev. Traci Blackmon v. State of Missouri. In addition to adding Rev. Gray as a plaintiff, an amended complaint filed last night in the Circuit Court for the City of St. Louis adds a 1986 anti-abortion law to the statutes being challenged. The lawsuit demonstrates that Missouri lawmakers violated the state constitution by enshrining in law their personal religious beliefs about abortion and the origins of life when they enacted several abortion bans and other laws restricting abortion access.
The newly added 1986 law was passed as part of an omnibus anti-abortion bill, S.C.H.H.B. 1596, that was co-written by the Missouri Catholic Conference. 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 this lawsuit – rely on this inherently religious theory of when life begins.
The Rev. Darryl Gray, Pastor At Greater Fairfax Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis:
“As a Progressive Baptist, the freedom to determine one’s own life path is central to my faith. 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. This 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.”
Rachel Laser, President And CEO Of Americans United:
“Missouri’s abortion bans are a direct attack on the separation of church and state. Religious extremists and their lawmaker allies are forcing all Missourians to live by their narrow beliefs. Religious freedom promises each of us the freedom to make our own decisions about our own bodies based on our own beliefs. That’s why so many faith leaders are speaking out in support of church-state separation as the shield that protects both religious freedom and abortion access for everyone.”
Fatima Goss Graves, President And CEO Of NWLC:
“These abortion bans in Missouri and across the country are attempts by politicians to control and dehumanize us. Rather than letting each person follow their own beliefs when making important decisions about their own bodies, lives, and futures, these politicians want to force us to live according to their beliefs. But for many, including the clergy plaintiffs in our case, their faith calls them to support abortion access because it is critical to the health, autonomy, economic security, and equality of women and all who can become pregnant. People deserve to live in a world where they are able to make their own personal decisions about their bodies, lives, and futures. Today’s lawsuit is an important step in getting us closer to that reality.”
The lawsuit Rev. Traci Blackmon v. State of Missouri was filed on Jan. 19, 2023. It now represents 14 Missouri clergy members from diverse faith traditions, including Baptist, Episcopalian, Orthodox Judaism, Reform Judaism, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalism and United Methodist. One plaintiff is also a state legislator. (A full list of clergy plaintiffs, along with quotes and photos, is available here.)
The lawsuit demonstrates that Gov. Michael Parson and the Missouri Legislature violated the state constitution by enshrining into law their personal religious beliefs about abortion and the origins of life 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 and video of legislators’ remarks about their religious motivations to ban abortion are available here.)
The faith leaders are asking the Circuit Court for the City of St. Louis to issue a permanent injunction striking down the abortion bans. The lawsuit demonstrates how HB 126 and earlier statutes and regulations restricting abortion violate three sections of the Missouri Constitution that prohibit state officials from compelling people to support or participate in any religious activities or beliefs, favoring any particular religion, or using public money to support religion.
In addition to the State of Missouri, defendants include 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.
- A copy of the lawsuit’s amended complaint.
- A factsheet and videos of Missouri legislators’ remarks on their religious motivations to ban abortion.
- Information about the faith leader plaintiffs, including photos and remarks.
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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