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Missouri’s abortion ban does not violate separation of church and state, judge rules

Students hold up anti-abortion signs at the Midwest March for Life on May 1 at the Missouri State Capitol (Anna Spoerre/Missouri Independent).
Students hold up anti-abortion signs at the Midwest March for Life on May 1 at the Missouri State Capitol (Anna Spoerre/Missouri Independent).

A St. Louis judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Missouri clergy members, ruling that, while the state's determination that life begins at conception, may be shared by some religious people, 'it is not itself necessarily a religious belief.'

Missouri’s near-total abortion ban does not fly in the face of the state constitution’s separation of church and state, a St. Louis judge determined.

The ruling came Friday, several days shy of the 2-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the constitutional right to an abortion and paved the way for Missouri to become the first state to ban the procedure.

Last year, 14 Missouri clergy members across seven denominations sued the state, alleging the ban violated Missouri’s strict separation of church and state. They demanded that the abortion ban be lifted.

The clergy members in their initial complaint took issue with state law which says “life begins at conception,” arguing that lawmakers “weaponized their religious beliefs” in a way that not every religion or religious person agrees with.

But in a 44-page ruling that delved into the state’s abortion restrictions dating back to 1825, St. Louis Circuit Judge Jason Sengheiser decided the state had not erred and dismissed the lawsuit.

“While the determination that life begins at conception may run counter to some religious beliefs,” he wrote, “it is not itself necessarily a religious belief.”

The ruling

In 2019, while debating what would become the state’s “trigger law,” many Missouri lawmakers called on their faith as their guide in supporting the legislation.

That included then-state Rep. Nick Schroer, who co-sponsored the legislation dubbed the “Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act.” Schroer, who is now a state senator, said at the time that his Catholic faith instructed his decision to file the bill.

His bill ultimately passed, making it possible for Missouri to outlaw abortion in June 2022, when laws around abortion were returned to state leaders’ hands. Now in Missouri, abortions are only legal in emergency situations “to avert the death of the pregnant woman or for which a delay will create a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.”

Health care providers who perform abortions not necessary to save the woman’s life can be charged with a class B felony, which means up to 15 years in prison. Their medical license can also be suspended or revoked as a result.

“By legislating that life begins at ‘conception,’ the Missouri legislature dictates a narrowly Christian perspective onto all of Missouri’s diverse faith communities,” the lawsuit reads.

The clergy members pointed to a different part of the state constitution when making their argument. Specifically a section that reads: “The state shall not coerce any person to participate in any prayer or other religious activity.”

Sengheiser disagreed with their assertion that the “trigger law” is unconstitutional on these merits.

“The intent of the Missouri legislature has become increasingly couched in religious language,” the judge wrote. But he added that lawmakers have also made “extremely detailed medical and scientific findings” in state law based on increased knowledge of fetal development.

Clergy members share abortion stories

At least three clergy members who filed the suit have previously had abortions.

Among them is the Rev. Cynthia Bumb, of the United Church of Christ in St. Louis, who had a surgical abortion in 1993 in Missouri at 12 weeks pregnant after she learned the fetus was nonviable.

And Rabbi Susan Talve, of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, who had an abortion in 1973 in New York City when she was 19, a choice she wrote she was “immensely relieved” to have.

The lawsuit also included the story of the Rev. Barbara Phifer, a United Methodist minister in St. Louis County, in which she told her own story of needing an abortion in Missouri in 1978.

She wrote that while she was in seminary, she experienced a miscarriage in which the fetus didn’t pass naturally. Phiger said it took her five weeks to be admitted into a Missouri hospital to receive a surgical abortion, during which time she said she could have died.

Now a Democratic state representative and candidate for secretary of state, Phifer said she often counsels families who ask her advice on whether to have an abortion. She said she encourages them to consider factors such as their finances, emotional resources and health.

Phifer in the suit wrote that she believes current state laws “remove the decision-making capacity from pregnant people, which conflicts with her belief that all people are made in God’s image as autonomous beings with equal capacity to direct their lives.”

No ruling on TRAP laws

The lawsuit also asked the court to dismantle a series of TRAP laws put into place in the years leading up to the state’s near-total abortion ban. These “targeted regulation of abortion providers” laws impaired abortion access across the state until only one abortion clinic remained in Missouri by 2019.

The clergy members argued the following TRAP laws were also in violation of the separation of church and state: A mandatory 72 hour waiting period between an appointment to inquire about an abortion and the actual procedure, which must be done by the same physician seen initially and a state-mandated pamphlet given to patients that states abortions “terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being.”

Sengheiser ruled the argument against TRAP laws was no longer ripe, since the abortion ban essentially negated the need for any of those laws to be enforced.

The clergy members in a statement Friday said they are considering whether to appeal.