St. Louis rabbis among Missouri religious leaders suing to overturn state abortion ban

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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 ELLEN FUTTERMAN , EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Thirteen religious leaders from across the state, including five who are Jewish, filed a lawsuit Thursday in St. Louis Circuit Court challenging Missouri’s abortion ban, arguing that it is unconstitutional because it imposes “one narrow religious doctrine on all Missouri residents and violates the separation of church and state.”

The lawsuit, Rev. Traci Blackmon v. State of Missouri, maintains that Gov. Michael Parson and the Missouri Legislature violated the state constitution by injecting 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 prohibited abortion access in the state.

The faith leaders, from St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City, allege that 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.’”

“Abortion bans take away our ability to make our own decision about our own bodies, our healthcare, our lives and our future, based on our own moral and religious beliefs,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The organization, along with the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), filed the lawsuit on behalf of the 13 clergy members.

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“It’s time for a national recommitment to church-state separation and we’re starting in Missouri because here the lawmakers told us that they were injecting their religious views, their holy books, into the abortion ban,” added Laser, who is Jewish. “And the law itself has religious language in it so it’s easy to demonstrate the way that abortion bans violate church-state separation and are unconstitutional.”

Currently, abortion is banned in Missouri except in cases of medical emergencies. Missouri law makes performing an abortion a felony punishable by 5 to 15 years in prison. Medical professionals who perform abortions also could lose their licenses.

The lawsuit points to several examples where religious beliefs were mentioned by legislators in discussing abortion bans. Former Rep. Nick Schroer, a Republican from St. Charles County who sponsored House Bill 126, stated that “as a Catholic, I do believe life begins at conception, and that is built into our legislative findings.” Schroer is now a member of the Missouri Senate.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Ben Baker, R-Newton County in southwest Missouri, said, “From the one-cell stage at the moment of conception, you were already there … And what makes you valuable is that you equally share the image of our Creator. You are His work of art. And the masterpiece of your life will only happen if you allow it to develop.”

And then-Rep. Holly Thompson Rehder, a Republican from Sikeston who is now a state senator, asserted: “(God) 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.”

The religious leaders are asking the court to issue a permanent injunction striking down Missouri’s abortion ban. The lawsuit argues that HB 126 and earlier statutes and regulations restricting abortion violate provisions 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.

“I was honored to be able to join this case because I have profound concerns about the way religious views have been enacted into law, particularly in Missouri,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and one of the plaintiffs.  “I think it is critical for all people, but especially state leaders, to speak out and say not all of our religious views are being represented and that none of our religious views should be the law of the land for an entire group of people.”

Along with Picker Neiss, the other Jewish clergy plaintiffs are Rabbis Jim Bennett and Andrea Goldstein of Congregation Shaare Emeth, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation and Rabbi Doug Alpert of Congregation Kol Ami in Kansas City. Other religious faiths represented by the plaintiffs include Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalism and United Methodist. One plaintiff is also a state legislator.

Laser said since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion in June, her organization has wanted to challenge the decision under religious freedom protections.

“The question was where to start, what state would demonstrate such as clear violation and had very strong religious freedom protections,” she said. “And with Missouri, we hit the jackpot.”

However, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who is a Republican, vowed “to defend the right to life with every tool at my disposal,” adding, “I want Missouri to be the safest state in the nation for children and that includes unborn children.”

While other states, including Indiana and Kentucky, have filed religious freedom lawsuits challenging abortion restrictions, Laser says this lawsuit is different because it violates the state constitution and should be nullified.

“A lot of people don’t realize that Missouri’s constitutional protections are stronger and more protective of individual freedoms than the U.S. constitution and protects the separation of church and state more strongly,” said Denise Lieberman, a local  attorney in the case. “And that is critical protection for Missouri citizens.”