Thank you to faith leaders supporting the separation of church, state


Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth addresses the crowd at a press conference announcing a lawsuit on behalf of 13 religious leaders seeking to overturn Missouri’s abortion bans, asserting they violate the state’s constitution.

By Stacey Newman

I’ll never forget a rabbi who testified before my House committee during the 2017 Extraordinary Emergency Session on Abortion called by then-Gov. Eric Greitens.  

Rabbi Jonah Zinn, wearing his yarmulke, sat directly in front of me and explained the Reform Jewish perspective of abortion according to the Torah, to my predominately evangelical Christian fellow committee members.

I thought my colleagues’ heads were going to explode.

During my nine years in the legislature, I had become accustomed to hearing “Christian” points of view in hearings or debates, usually on reproductive health bills.  As the sole Jewish House member in 2017, I was overjoyed to witness Rabbi Zinn’s teaching of an alternate religious view as we debated government mandates restricting women’s access to abortion. 

I knew religion had no place in government, especially, no place in forcing state mandated pregnancy.

But there it was, stated in Missouri Revised Statute, Chapter 1.205 , passed in 1986, “the life of each human being begins at conception,” a value statement of which my Jewish faith, let alone the scientific/medical community, strongly disagrees.  In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 109 S. Ct.3040, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 purposefully declined to rule on the constitutionality of this section.

Most of us will insist that Missouri is wrong to impose “a state sanctioned religion,” but courts have been reluctant to intervene.  

Last week, 13 Missouri interfaith leaders said now they must.

Clergy from six faith traditions filed suit challenging Missouri’s abortion bans as unconstitutionally imposing one narrow religious doctrine on all Missouri residents, violating the separation of church and state. The lawsuit, Rev. Traci Blackmon v. State of Missouri, accuses the Missouri Legislature and Gov. Mike Parson of violating several sections of the Missouri Constitution, which prohibits state officials from favoring any religion or compelling people to support or participate in any religious activities or beliefs.

The groundbreaking lawsuit, the first of its kind in the nation in response to state abortion bans, was long overdue. Should one religious doctrine favored by extremist state legislators determine my ability to make my own reproductive health care decisions? Or yours?

 No, it emphatically should not.

The HB126 abortion ban bill was sponsored by then-Rep. Nick Schroer, R-St. Charles County. Schroer, who is now a state senator, argued during bill debate: “As a Catholic, I do believe life begins at conception and that it is built into our legislative findings.”

He wasn’t the only one openly advocating for the state to enshrine a specific faith doctrine into a new law. 

Then-Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, also now a state senator,  remarked on the House floor in support of HB126:

“God doesn’t give us a choice in this area. He is the creator of life. And I, being made in His image and likeness, don’t get to choose to take that away, no matter how that child came to be.  To me, life begins at conception, and my God doesn’t give that option. … Psalms 119 says, ‘Your hands made me, and formed me.’ ”

Former House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, added to the debate.

“We believe fundamentally that the right to life in our state is so incredibly sacred and so incredibly sacrosanct,” he said.

They could not have been more blatant.  

Rep. Ian Mackey, D-Clayton, warned them at the time on the House floor that they were violating the Missouri Constitution’s promise of church-state separation by codifying their religion and their God into the bill. 

Whether you believe in a specific faith tradition or perhaps none at all, the legislature and Parson have no business imposing their personal religious beliefs on the state.

For years, their right-wing Christian views disputed accredited medical science in hearings and floor debates in the State Capitol. It has become their standard operation today as the majority party in power controls every statewide office and both chambers of the legislature.  

We’ve seen their mistrust of stem cell cures, medical technology advances, lifesaving vaccines and even attacks on public health policy, rooted in a particular religious doctrine seemingly in opposition to modern science.

Finally, 13 committed clergy members stood up and cried, “Enough.”  

Representing Episcopalian, Orthodox Judaism, United Church of Christ, Reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalism and United Methodist traditions, the 13 plaintiffs said no to the Missouri abortion bans, which restrict bodily autonomy, deny equality and violate personal religious freedom.

I could not be prouder of our interfaith leaders, including five rabbis, who respect medical science as complimentary to their religious views, not in contradiction. 

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, summarized it best.

“The claim that life begins at conception is a statement of theological belief and that belief is explicitly not a Jewish one,” she said. “Our Jewish community has not only survived but flourished in America because of the civil liberties we have been afforded. The cornerstone of these liberties is the separation of church and state, including the right to abortion.”

I say amen and thank you, faith leaders.