ST. LOUIS – A group of religious leaders who support abortion rights filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging Missouri's abortion ban, saying lawmakers openly invoked their religious beliefs while drafting the measure and thereby imposed those beliefs on others who don't share them.
The lawsuit filed in St. Louis is the latest of many to challenge restrictive abortion laws enacted by conservative states after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. That landmark ruling left abortion rights up to each state to decide.
Since then, religious abortion rights supporters have increasingly used religious freedom lawsuits in seeking to protect abortion access. The religious freedom complaints are among nearly three dozen post-Roe lawsuits that have been filed against 19 states’ abortion bans, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
The Missouri lawsuit brought on behalf of 13 Christian , Jewish and Unitarian Universalist leaders seeks a permanent injunction barring the state from enforcing its abortion law and a declaration that provisions of its law violate the Missouri Constitution.
“What the lawsuit says is that when you legislate your religious beliefs into law, you impose your beliefs on everyone else and force all of us to live by your own narrow beliefs,” said Michelle Banker of the National Women’s Law Center, the lead attorney in the case. “And that hurts us. That denies our basic human rights.”
Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Republican, called the lawsuit “foolish.”
“We were acting on the belief that life is precious and should be treated as such. I don’t think that’s a religious belief,” Rowden said.
Within minutes of last year's Supreme Court decision, then-Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Gov. Mike Parson, both Republicans, filed paperwork to immediately enact a 2019 law prohibiting abortions “except in cases of medical emergency.” That law contained a provision making it effective only if Roe v. Wade was overturned.
The law makes it a felony punishable by 5 to 15 years in prison to perform or induce an abortion. Medical professionals who do so also could lose their licenses. The law says that women who undergo abortions cannot be prosecuted.
Missouri already had some of the nation’s more restrictive abortion laws and had seen a significant decline in the number of abortions performed, with residents instead traveling to clinics just across the state line in Illinois and Kansas.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the faith leaders by Americans United for Separation of Church & State and the National Women’s Law Center, said sponsors and supporters of the Missouri measure “repeatedly emphasized their religious intent in enacting the legislation." It quotes the bill's sponsor, Republican state Rep. Nick Schroer, as saying that “as a Catholic I do believe life begins at conception and that is built into our legislative findings.” A co-sponsor, Republican state Rep. Barry Hovis, said he was motivated “from the Biblical side of it," according to the lawsuit.
“I'm here today because none of our religious views on abortion or anything else should be enshrined into our laws,” Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis and one of the plaintiffs, said at a news conference.
Lawsuits in several other states take similar approaches.
In Indiana, lawyers for five anonymous women — who are Jewish, Muslim and spiritual — and advocacy group Hoosier Jews for Choice have argued that state’s ban infringes on their beliefs. Their lawsuit specifically highlights the Jewish teaching that a fetus becomes a living person at birth and that Jewish law prioritizes the mother’s life and health.
A court ruling siding with the women was appealed by the Indiana attorney general's office, which is asking the state Supreme Court to consider the case.
In Kentucky, three Jewish women sued, claiming the state’s ban violates their religious rights under the state’s constitution and religious freedom law. They allege that Kentucky’s Republican-dominated legislature “imposed sectarian theology” by prohibiting nearly all abortions. The ban remains in effect while the Kentucky Supreme Court considers a separate case challenging the law.
But Banker said Missouri’s lawsuit is unique because while plaintiffs in other states claimed harm, “we are saying that the whole law violates separation of church and state and we’re seeking to get everything struck down.”
Missouri Republican attorney general, Andrew Bailey, said in a statement that he will “defend the right to life with every tool at my disposal.”
“I want Missouri to be the safest state in the nation for children and that includes unborn children," Bailey said.
Associated Press writer David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri, contributed to this report.
This story was initially published on Jan. 19. It was updated on Jan. 21 to correct that the lawsuit was filed on behalf of 13 Jewish, Christian and Unitarian Universalist leaders, not just Jewish and Christian leaders.