Judge upholds Missouri abortion ban amid ‘religious freedom’ challenge from faith leaders

Pro-Life demonstrators joined together in Washington DC for the annual March For Life Event in solidarity with the anti-abortion stance on Jan. 19, 2024.
Pro-Life demonstrators joined together in Washington DC for the annual March For Life Event in solidarity with the anti-abortion stance on Jan. 19, 2024. | Nicole Alcindor/The Christian Post

A Missouri circuit judge has ruled against several clergy members who argued that the state's abortion laws infringe on the Missouri Constitution's Establishment Clause. The lawsuit, led by a diverse group of faith leaders, was met with a dismissal.

The challenge, initiated in January 2023 by representatives from Christian, Jewish and Unitarian congregations, was spearheaded by advocacy groups, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the National Women's Law Center.

They sought an injunction to halt Missouri's abortion laws, which lack exceptions even in cases of rape or incest, arguing these laws violate constitutional provisions against the merging of church and state.

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St. Louis Circuit Judge Jason Sengheiser issued an order on Friday in favor of the state, maintaining that the abortion restrictions do not prevent anyone from practicing their faith freely.

Sengheiser wrote that while the belief life begins at conception is sometimes a religious belief and may run counter to others' religious beliefs, it is not only a religious belief. He pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health, which overturned the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortion a national right. 

"The Court finds that the restrictions in the ban are consistent with Missouri's historical criminalization of and restrictions of abortion," the judge wrote. "Essentially, the only that changed is that Roe was reversed, opening the door to this further regulation. Dobbs provided in part that the State has an 'interest in protecting prenatal life' even 'before viability.' The Total Abortion Ban is consistent with this interest and a result of the holding in Dobbs." 

The legal representatives for the clergy, including civil rights lawyer Denise Lieberman and the team at Arnold & Porter, expressed their disagreement with the verdict. 

"Missouri's abortion ban is a direct attack on the separation of church and state, religious freedom and reproductive freedom," they said in a statement released through the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Missouri lawmakers made clear that they were imposing their personal religious beliefs on all Missourians when they enacted these laws. We remain committed to restoring abortion access in Missouri."

House Bill 126, often referred to as the "Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act," includes multiple provisions to restrict abortion access. It also bans abortions at various stages of pregnancy, depending on specific circumstances. House Bill 126 included a "trigger ban" on abortions, which was enacted following the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Senate Bill 5 increases regulations on abortion providers, imposes additional health and safety requirements and enhances the state's ability to enforce abortion laws.

The plaintiffs included Rev. Traci Blackmon, the former associate general minister for justice and local church ministries for the United Churches of Christ, and 13 other faith leaders from seven different denominations.

They believe that the insertion of religious language into the legislative process contravenes the state constitution. They objected to one section of the statute that reads: "In recognition that Almighty God is the author of life, that all men and women are 'endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life." 

However, Sengheiser noted that similar language can be found in the preamble to the Missouri Constitution, which expresses "profound reverence for the Supreme Ruler of the Universe." He contends that the rest of the abortion law doesn't contain any other religious language.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey's office defended the legislation, saying the religious convictions of individual lawmakers do not equate to a constitutional violation.

"Today is a major win for women and their unborn children as a Missouri court sided with our office yet again in our efforts to defend the sanctity of life," he said in a statement. "Having lost a child, this issue is personal for me. My office will continue to use every tool at its disposal to protect the unborn. Our children are worth the fight."

Last month, Missouri passed a law stopping public funds like Medicaid from going to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. Gov. Mike Parson signed House Bill 2634 into law, which makes it "unlawful for any public funds to be expended to any abortion facility, or to any affiliate of such abortion facility."

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