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In an attempt to overturn extreme abortion restrictions in Missouri, 13 clergy members have filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the laws impose one religious interpretation upon everyone else, violating their rights and the Constitution. The clergy members represent faith traditions that say abortion is permissible or required in certain situations.

The 83-page lawsuit goes after a 2019 “trigger” law that said if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, abortions would only be permitted in medical emergencies (which do not include rape or incest) and that anyone who performs or induces an abortion risks between 5-15 years behind bars.

Maybe the most damning thing in the lawsuit is the collection of statements from Republican lawmakers who cited their religious faith as justification for their support of the bill, suggesting that the legislation wasn’t motivated by any kind of secular intent. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of those plaintiffs along with the National Women’s Law Center and the law firm Arnold & Porter, explained:

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…”

You can hear it from the lawmakers’ own mouths here:

Those comments give the plaintiffs a strong argument that this case centers around religious freedom and personal autonomy, not merely abortion rights, as the lawsuit makes clear:

This open invocation of religion in enacting H.B. 126 marked a departure from earlier legislative efforts to restrict abortion, when the sponsors claimed that their intent was to protect Missouri women. The legislative debate over those provisions reveals that, as with H.B. 126, the true purpose and effect of these laws was to enshrine certain religious beliefs in law. In enacting S.B. 5, for example, legislators spoke repeatedly of their intent to protect “innocent life,” could point as justification for the law only to biased investigations by the Senate “Sanctity of Life” Committee, and ignored the testimony of clergy who warned that targeting providers to limit abortion access impermissibly imposed one religious view on everyone else.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to strike down the abortion bans in the name of the Missouri Constitution, which requires “a strict separation of religion and government that is more robust than the federal Establishment Clause.” It’s not just the trigger law they’re going after; they’re also targeting the unnecessary 72-hour waiting period that exists only for abortion (and no other medical decision) and various gestational age bans on the procedure.

“Simply put, when Missouri lawmakers explicitly state that life begins at conception, that is a theological statement,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. “That is a religious statement. That is not a Jewish statement, and it violates the Missouri Constitution, which prohibits the establishment of religion.”

Already, one lawmaker is pushing back saying there’s nothing religious about a law that includes the line “Almighty God is the author of life.”

Missouri Senate President Pro-tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, called the lawsuit “foolish.”

“Legislators were acting on the belief that life is precious and should be treated as such,” said Rowden, who voted to pass the 2019 law that put the trigger ban in place. “I don’t think that’s a religious belief. I think people need to understand what the separation of church and state is, most people don’t.”

We can safety put Caleb Rowden in the “most people” category, then. (Imagine the chutzpah it takes to suggest “Americans United for Separation of Church and State” doesn’t understand separation of church and state.)

While there have been efforts to overturn earlier anti-abortion laws in Missouri using similar arguments, they haven’t gone anywhere. We haven’t seen a case with this many plaintiffs, from this many religious backgrounds, surrounded by people who have experience filing these kinds of cases. And while it’s frustrating that it might take a religious freedom argument to block the abortion bans—rather than a more straight-forward argument against abortion restrictions in general—whatever does the trick is welcome. (It’s kind of frustrating that a successful case here involves people saying, “That faith-based abortion ban is unconstitutional because it violates my faith,” but again, if it works, fantastic.)

As Religion News Service points out, there are similar lawsuits in Florida and Kentucky, filed by clergy members (usually Jewish ones) using religious arguments to fight abortion bans. Unlike those cases, however, this one in unique in that it says Missouri lawmakers have imposed specific religious beliefs on citizens. The video backs that up.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.