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  • Writer's pictureMostafa Marmousa

Missouri Faith Leaders File Lawsuit Challenging State Abortion Bans That Violate Church-State Separation

Thirteen Clergy Members Challenge Missouri Abortion Bans That Impose One Religious Viewpoint On All Missourians, Denying Equality And Bodily Autonomy

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI – Thirteen clergy from six faith traditions filed a lawsuit today challenging Missouri’s abortion bans and several related abortion restrictions as unconstitutionally imposing one narrow religious doctrine on all Missouri residents, and violating the separation of church and state. During a week that began with National Religious Freedom Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day and ends with what should be the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, these faith leaders feel it is critically important to challenge the Missouri abortion bans, which violate religious freedom and the state constitution’s promise of church-state separation. 

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and the law firm Arnold & Porter represent the thirteen members of the clergy, whose various faiths call them to support abortion access because of the critical importance it holds for the health, autonomy, economic security, and equality of women and all who can become pregnant. Religious traditions represented by the plaintiffs include Episcopalian, Orthodox Judaism, United Church of Christ, Reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalism and United Methodist. One plaintiff is also a state legislator.

The lawsuit, Rev. Traci Blackmon v. State of Missouri, demonstrates that Gov. Michael Parson and the Missouri Legislature violated the state constitution by enshrining 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 destroyed abortion access in the state. One of the bans in H.B. 126 was a “trigger ban” that prohibited all abortions following the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. 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” – a phrase that an opposing lawmaker noted was “in violation of the separation of church and state.” Legislators said they passed the ban because:

  • “to me God doesn’t give us a choice in this area. He is the Creator of life.”

  • “being from the Biblical side of it, I’ve always believed that life does occur at the point of conception.”

  • “Life begins at conception. Psalms 119 says …”

  • “as a Catholic I do believe life begins at conception. That is built into our legislative findings currently in law…”

(Examples of legislators’ remarks about their religious motivations to ban abortion are available here.)

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United: “Missouri’s abortion bans are a direct attack on the separation of church and state. Religious extremists and their lawmaker allies are forcing all Missourians to live by their narrow beliefs. Religious freedom promises each of us the freedom to make our own decisions about our own bodies based on our own beliefs. That’s why so many faith leaders are speaking out in support of church-state separation as the shield that protects both religious freedom and abortion access for everyone.”

Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of NWLC: “These abortion bans in Missouri and across the country are attempts by politicians to control and dehumanize us. Rather than letting each person follow their own beliefs when making important decisions about their own bodies, lives and futures, these politicians want to force us to live according to their beliefs. But for many, including the clergy plaintiffs in our case, their faith calls them to support abortion access because it is critical to the health, autonomy, economic security, and equality of women and all who can become pregnant. People deserve to live in a world where they are able to make their own personal decisions about their bodies, lives, and futures. Today’s lawsuit is an important step in getting us closer to that reality.”

Rev. Traci Blackmon, Associate General Minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries for the United Church of Christ: “My God is a God of choice. 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. 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.”

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Executive Director, Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis: “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. 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. Our Jewish community has not only survived but flourished in America because of the civil liberties we have been afforded in this country unlike most other countries in which we have lived, and the cornerstone of those liberties is the separation of church and state, including the right to abortion and access to comprehensive reproductive health care.”

Other faith leader plaintiffs include:

  • Rabbi Doug Alpert, Congregation Kol Ami, Kansas City

  • Rev. Jan Barnes, United Church of Christ, Webster Groves (retired)

  • Rabbi Jim Bennett, Congregation Shaare Emeth, Creve Coeur

  • Rev. Cindy Bumb, United Church of Christ, St. Louis (retired)

  • Rabbi Andrea Goldstein, Congregation Shaare Emeth, Creve Coeur

  • Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia

  • The Rt. Rev. Deon K. Johnson, Eleventh Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri

  • Rev. Holly McKissick, Peace Church United Church of Christ, Kansas City 

  • Rev. Barbara Phifer, retired United Methodist minister and State Representative in District 90

  • Rabbi Susan Talve, Central Reform Congregation, St. Louis

  • Rev. Krista Taves, Eliot Unitarian Chapel, Kirkwood, and First Unitarian Church, Alton, Ill.

(Additional information about the plaintiffs, including photos and remarks, is available here.)

The faith leaders are asking the Circuit Court for the City of St. Louis to issue a permanent injunction striking down the abortion bans. The lawsuit demonstrates how HB 126 and earlier statutes and regulations restricting abortion violate three sections 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. 

In addition to the State of Missouri, defendants include state and local officials responsible for enforcing or ensuring compliance with the abortion ban, including Missouri Gov. Michael L. Parson; Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey; a class of all the municipal prosecuting attorneys statewide; Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services Acting Director Paula F. Nickelson; and several officials at the Missouri State Board of Registration for the Healing Arts. 

Resources: 

  • A copy of the lawsuit complaint.

  • factsheet on Missouri legislators’ remarks on their religious motivations to ban abortion.

  • Information about the faith leader plaintiffs, including photos and remarks.

Contacts: Requests for information or media interviews should be directed to:

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Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. Learn more at www.au.org.

The National Women’s Law Center fights for gender justice — in the courts, in public policy, and in our society — working across the issues that are central to the lives of women and girls. We use the law in all its forms to change culture and drive solutions to the gender inequity that shapes our society and to break down the barriers that harm all of us — especially those who face multiple forms of discrimination, including women of color, LGBTQ people, and low-income women and families. For more than 45 years, we have been on the leading edge of every major legal and policy victory for women. Find out more at NWLC.org.

With nearly 1,000 lawyers practicing in 13 offices around the globe, Arnold & Porter serves clients across 40 distinct practice areas. The firm offers 100 years of renowned regulatory expertise, sophisticated litigation and transactional practices, and leading multidisciplinary offerings in the life sciences and financial services industries.

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