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Clergy members challenge Missouri abortion ban on religious grounds

The faith leaders claim in an 83-page lawsuit that the restrictions violate religious freedom and the state constitution's promise of church-state separation.

ST. LOUIS (CN) — A group of clergy leaders filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging the state of Missouri’s abortion ban on religious grounds.

Former Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in November, made Missouri the first state to ban the controversial medical procedure minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June. Schmitt’s successor Andrew Bailey, along with Governor Michael Parson and several county prosecuting attorneys, are named as defendants in the lawsuit filed in St. Louis City Circuit Court.

The complaint, filed by 13 clergy members of multiple faiths and affiliations, claims the ban violates religious freedom and the state constitution’s promise of separation of church and state.

“My God is a God of choice,” the Reverend Traci Blackmon, the lead plaintiff in the case, said in a statement. “In the United Church of Christ, we believe that God intended people to have autonomy over their lives and bodies, and to have authority to make complex decisions, including whether to have an abortion.”

Blackmon, associate general minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ, continued by saying, “Missouri’s abortion bans are an unconscionable abuse of religion to oppress all Missourians. Legislators do not have the right to impose their faith on me or anyone else. They’re betraying the separation of church and state that has enabled the religious plurality we enjoy in our state and in our country.”

Bailey responded with a statement claiming the ban is part of an effort to make Missouri the safest state in the nation, which includes protecting unborn children.

“As Attorney General, I will protect the Constitution and defend the right to life with every tool at my disposal,” the Republican AG said. “In Harris v. McRae, the United States Supreme Court rejected arguments like those raised in this case, and the Missouri Attorney General’s Office has won on similar claims at the Missouri Supreme Court. We look forward to doing it again. I will never back down from this fight.”

Several Rabbis are among the plaintiffs. Jewish tradition holds that life begins at birth.

“Missouri’s abortion bans contradict, devalue and disrespect my religious beliefs that the life and health of a pregnant person take precedence over a fetus,” Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, said in a statement. “Jewish law mandates the termination of a pregnancy if the life of the person carrying the fetus is in jeopardy. The claim that life begins at conception is a statement of theological belief, and that belief is explicitly not a Jewish one.”

Schmitt based his legal opinion activating the abortion ban on a trigger provision contained in Section B of House Bill 126, which was passed in 2019 by the Republican-dominated Legislature and allowed Missouri to outlaw abortion if Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court’s conservative super-majority.

The ban makes performing an abortion a Class B felony and medical providers who do so could lose their license.

“In a years-long crusade against abortion access, state officials have weaponized their religious beliefs to control the bodies and deny the autonomy of women and all who can become pregnant, jeopardizing their health, lives, and futures,” the 83-page lawsuit states.

The religious leaders claim the ban is causing a public health crisis.

“As a result, Missourians who seek abortions must now travel across state lines to obtain this basic reproductive health care, unless they meet the statute’s narrow definition of a ‘medical emergency’ and are able to find a hospital willing to risk the Bans’ draconian criminal and civil penalties,” the lawsuit states. “Already, reports have surfaced of individuals being denied care in pregnancy-related emergencies, including Mylissa Farmer, a Missouri resident who was denied emergency abortion care from a Missouri hospital when her water broke at nearly 18 weeks of pregnancy.”

The lawsuit claims the ban especially hurts the most economically vulnerable, who cannot afford to take time off work or get child care to cross state lines for an abortion.

The complaint claims the law was passed on theological grounds. It quotes conservative lawmakers statements regarding the passage of HB 126.

“For example, the bill’s lead sponsor, Representative Nick Schroer, explained that ‘as a Catholic I do believe life begins at conception and that is built into our legislative findings,’” the complaint states.

It continues, “One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Representative Barry Hovis, stated that he was motivated ‘from the Biblical side of it, . . . life does occur at the point of conception.’ Another co-sponsor, Representative Ben Baker, stated: ‘From the one-cell stage at the moment of conception, you were already there . . . you equally share the image of our Creator . . . you are His work of art.’”

The plaintiffs are asking for a permanent injunction prohibiting the state from enforcing the abortion ban.

The lawsuit is one of several across the country filed in conservative states where abortion access was banned or severely limited after the overturning of Roe last year.

The challenges have been met with various outcomes. Earlier this month, a court in Idaho preserved the abortion ban, while South Carolina’s ban was blocked. Most recently, Indiana appealed to its high court on Thursday to reinstate its abortion ban after it was blocked by a lower court.

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