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Abortion ban likely violates religious freedoms, Indiana appeals court says

Jewish women in Indiana fought against one of the nation's strictest abortion laws, arguing that the restrictions conflict with their religious belief that abortions are necessary if the health of the pregnant person is compromised.

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) — The Indiana Court of Appeals found Thursday that the state's stringent abortion restrictions run afoul of religious protections, confirming that ending a pregnancy can qualify as a religious exercise and upholding an injunction on the procedure.

The unanimous three-judge panel ruled sided with a lower court's decision and determined that not only could the case proceed as a class action, but that the state’s abortion restrictions should not apply to individuals with a sincere religious objection.

The plaintiffs, who include five anonymous women and the group Hoosier Jews for Choice, filed the original lawsuit in 2022 and sought to prevent Indiana’s abortion restrictions from going into effect, claiming that the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act protected their sincerely held religious beliefs to access abortion.

While the plaintiffs, three of whom are Jewish women, in the case have scored a victory, the ruling does not immediately change the abortion ban currently in effect, and the state can appeal the ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court.

A lower court previously sided with the plaintiffs, when it granted an injunction against the new law, but while the state’s appeal was still proceeding, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the abortion law. However, that ruling did not directly address religious challenges, leaving this current case to proceed with the Indiana Court of Appeals.

Judge Leanna Weissman authored the 70-page opinion, finding that the plaintiffs had standing to pursue the case and would likely prevail on the merits.

“Without a preliminary injunction, plaintiffs will suffer the loss of their right to exercise their sincere religious beliefs by obtaining an abortion when directed by their religion and prohibited by the Abortion Law,” wrote Weissman.

The court found that the religious exceptions sought by the plaintiffs were compatible with those already found in the law, as they are based upon prioritizing the mother’s interests.

Under Indiana's near-total abortion ban, the procedure is prohibited with exceptions only in cases of rape, incest, lethal fetal anomaly and when there is a serious risk to the pregnant woman’s life.

Weissman also found that legal precedent has shown that corporations can exercise religious exemptions in the realm of reproduction, and an individual should be granted the same rights.

“If a corporation can engage in a religious exercise by refusing to provide abortifacients—contraceptives that essentially abort a pregnancy after fertilization—it stands to reason that a pregnant person can engage in a religious exercise by pursuing an abortion. In both situations, the claimant is required to take or abstain from action that the claimant’s sincere religious beliefs direct,” wrote Weissmann. 

In his concurring opinion, Judge Mark Bailey went further in his disagreement with the state's abortion law.

“Legislators, an overwhelming majority of whom have not experienced childbirth, nevertheless dictate that virtually all pregnancies in this State must proceed to birth notwithstanding the onerous burden upon women and girls," he wrote. "They have done so not based upon science or viability but upon a blanket assertion that they are the protectors of 'life' from the moment of conception. In my view, this is an adoption of a religious viewpoint held by some, but certainly not all, Hoosiers."

While the ruling upholds the previous decision, it did remand the case back to the lower court to narrowly tailor the preliminary injunction as the case proceeds.

Indianapolis-based attorney Ken Falk of the Indiana ACLU, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case, applauded the ruling after it was issued.

“For many Hoosiers, the ability to obtain an abortion is necessary based on a sincerely held religious belief,” said Falk. “The burden placed on these individuals by Indiana’s abortion ban is absolute and life-altering. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is clear that it protects religious freedom for all Hoosiers, and the Court of Appeals’ decision today reflects that clear directive.” 

An office spokesperson for Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita issued the following statement when asked for comment:

“Life is still winning here in Indiana. Today's ruling on the injunction only affects the four individuals and the single organization named in the lawsuit. But the ACLU is right about one thing — this case is far from over, and Hoosiers know our office will always fight to protect the unborn.”

Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Health, Politics

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