Update: Missouri Judge Allows Lawsuit to Move Forward
On June 30, 2023, the clergy plaintiffs largely won an important ruling allowing them to move forward with their challenges to Missouri’s total ban on abortion and restrictions on medication abortion, which unconstitutionally impose one narrow religious belief on all Missouri residents and violate the separation of church and state. Missouri Judge Jason Sengheiser ruled that all of the clergy plaintiffs have sufficiently demonstrated standing at this stage of the litigation to bring the lawsuit and can proceed to litigate the case. The court also held that one plaintiff, Reverend Molly Housh Gordon, could challenge the laws in her personal capacity as a Missourian of reproductive age who suffers from an autoimmune disorder that makes pregnancy dangerous.
This ruling is a victory in that the clergy now have an opportunity to fully litigate their claim that Missouri’s abortion ban violates the state constitution’s guarantee against separation of church and state. However, the court dismissed the clergy’s challenges to other restrictions that collectively decimated abortion access in the state even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. In a narrow, technical ruling, the court also concluded that several local prosecutors should not be defendants in the case, but this does not prevent the case from proceeding. The court rejected all of Missouri’s other arguments against the lawsuit, including the arguments based on the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions.
In January 2023, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, alongside law firm Arnold & Porter and local counsel Denise Lieberman, filed a lawsuit on behalf of fourteen clergy members from seven faith traditions against the state of Missouri challenging the state’s abortion ban and several abortion restrictions. The lawsuit, Rev. Traci Blackmon v. State of Missouri, argues that these restrictions establish one religious view about abortion as the law of the land in violation of the Missouri constitution’s robust protections for separation of church and state.
Religious traditions represented by the plaintiff clergy include Baptist, Episcopalian, Orthodox Judaism, United Church of Christ, Reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalism and United Methodist. One plaintiff is also a state legislator. For each of the plaintiffs, their faith calls 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.
The lawsuit 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 that 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…”
The faith leaders are asking the Circuit Court for the City of St. Louis to declare that the abortion ban and restrictions violate the Missouri constitution, and to issue a permanent injunction barring state and local officials from enforcing the challenged provisions.