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Coalition of religious leaders sues to overturn Missouri's ban on abortion

Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ, center, chants alongside a coalition of faith leaders suing to challenge Missouri’s abortion bans and restrictions on the basis of separation of church and state on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, outside of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ, center, chants alongside a coalition of faith leaders suing to challenge Missouri’s abortion bans and restrictions on the basis of separation of church and state on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, outside of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis.

Updated at 2:38 p.m. with new comments from Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey

Two national nonprofits have filed a lawsuit against Missouri officials in an attempt to overturn the state’s abortion ban.

The National Women’s Law Center and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit Thursday in St. Louis Circuit Court on behalf of 13 faith leaders in Missouri.

The lawsuit argues that Missouri’s so-called trigger ban and other laws restricting legal abortion access violate residents’ religious freedom. It names the state, Gov. Mike Parson and Attorney General Andrew Bailey as defendants.

“We all agree that our freedom to live out our faiths or profess no faith at all is an inalienable right I believe bestowed by God,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, association minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Without this separation, there is neither religious freedom nor just law. 

“I am not here to debate the morality of abortion with anyone," Blackmon said. “I’m here to defend women and birthing people’s right to not to have to — and to expose the hypocrisy of legislators who hide behind a famed pro-life agenda while serving a pro-death penalty state.”

Missouri Rep. Barbara Phifer, D-St. Louis, who also is a retired United Methodist minister, speaks to the media alongside faith leaders suing to challenge Missouri’s abortion bans and restrictions on the basis of separation of church and state on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, during a march to the St. Louis Circuit Court in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Rep. Barbara Phifer, D-St. Louis, who also is a retired United Methodist minister, speaks to the media alongside faith leaders suing to challenge Missouri’s abortion bans and restrictions on the basis of separation of church and state on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, during a march to the St. Louis Circuit Court in downtown St. Louis.

The suit claims legislators used explicitly religious language when crafting and passing the laws, violating the state’s establishment clause that separates church and state.

“Legislators who sponsored and pressed for this bill did so expressly in the name and service of a particular religious view that many Missourians and their faith communities do not share,” the lawsuit claims. “They openly invoked their personal religious beliefs as the reason for the law, enacting in the statute the religious views that 'Almighty God is the author of life' and that ‘the life of an individual human being begins at conception.’”

It asks the court to bar the state from enforcing the abortion ban on the grounds that it violates the Missouri Constitution.

Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ, center, speaks to the media alongside faith leaders suing to challenge Missouri’s abortion bans and restrictions on the basis of separation of church and state on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, outside of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ, center, speaks to the media alongside faith leaders suing to challenge Missouri’s abortion bans and restrictions on the basis of separation of church and state on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, outside of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis.

In June, Missouri became the first state in the nation to enact an abortion ban, just minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its 1973 ruling that made abortion legal nationwide.

Advocates for abortion rights note that the state’s ban is particularly burdensome to people of color, and that it compels people who need abortions to obtain them in the Metro East.

The plaintiffs represent Jewish, Episcopal, Methodist and other faith traditions.

While advocacy against abortion rights often comes from religious groups, faith leaders said there were many religions, including Judaism, that support a person’s right to obtain an abortion.

“Judaism demands demands of me my first priority must be to the living, breathing fully formed person sitting in front of me,” said Moharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. “But I am not here today to advocate that Missouri incorporate a Jewish view on abortion into our laws. I’m here today because none of our religious views on abortion — or anything else — should be enshrined into our law.”

The suit marks the first attempt from Americans United, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for religious freedom, to overturn state-level abortion bans.

Religious leaders said the explicitly religious language state lawmakers used in passing abortion restrictions and the strength of the constitution’s church and state protections make Missouri a good candidate for a challenge.

Bailey said he plans to vigorously defend the state against the lawsuit. He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected similar arguments and that his office has prevailed in another lawsuit before the Missouri Supreme Court.

"We look forward to doing it again," Bailey said. "I want Missouri to be the safest state in the nation for children and that includes unborn children."

Local faith leaders and supporters pose for a portrait after a lawsuit was filed challenging Missouri’s abortion restrictions on the basis of separation of church and state on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, during a march to the St. Louis Circuit Court in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Local faith leaders and supporters pose for a portrait after a lawsuit was filed challenging Missouri’s abortion restrictions on the basis of separation of church and state on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, during a march to the St. Louis Circuit Court in downtown St. Louis.

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.”

More than a dozen states have put full abortion bans in place since the high court overturned Roe v. Wade.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal nonprofit that advocates for abortion access, advocates and courts across the country have filed lawsuits challenging state-level abortion bans that went into effect after Roe.

Statehouse reporter Sarah Kellogg contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.