A lawsuit filed on behalf of several Missouri faith leaders on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision is asking a court to throw out the state's abortion law, alleging that lawmakers openly invoked their personal religious beliefs while drafting the measure.
The lawsuit, filed on Thursday in St. Louis, is the latest of many to challenge restrictive abortion laws enacted by conservative states after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022. That landmark ruling left abortion rights up to each state to decide.
Since then, religious abortion rights supporters have increasingly used religious freedom lawsuits in seeking to protect abortion access. The religious freedom complaints are among nearly three dozen post-Roe lawsuits that have been filed against 19 states’ abortion bans, according to the Brennan Centre for Justice.
The Missouri lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction barring the state from enforcing its abortion law and a declaration that provisions of its law violate the Missouri Constitution. Plaintiffs include 12 Christian and Jewish leaders.
“What the lawsuit says is that when you legislate your religious beliefs into law, you impose your beliefs on everyone else and force all of us to live by your own narrow beliefs,” said Michelle Banker of the National Women’s Law Center, lead attorney in the case.
“And that hurts us. That denies our basic human rights.”
Within minutes of last year's Supreme Court decision, then-Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Gov. Mike Parson, both Republicans, filed paperwork to immediately enact a 2019 law prohibiting abortions “except in cases of medical emergency.” That law contained a provision making it effective only if Roe v. Wade was overturned.
The law makes it a felony punishable by five to 15 years in prison to perform or induce an abortion. Medical professionals who do so also could lose their licenses. The law says that women who undergo abortions cannot be prosecuted.
Missouri already had some of the nation’s more restrictive abortion laws and had seen a significant decline in the number of abortions performed, with residents instead traveling to clinics just across the state line in Illinois and Kansas.
The lawsuit said sponsors and supporters of the Missouri measure “repeatedly emphasized their religious intent in enacting the legislation."
It quotes the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Nick Schroer, as saying that “as a Catholic I do believe life begins at conception and that is built into our legislative findings.” A co-sponsor, Republican state Rep. Barry Hovis, said he was motivated “from the Biblical side of it," according to the lawsuit.
Lawsuits in several other states are taking similar approaches.
In Indiana, lawyers for five anonymous women - who are Jewish, Muslim and spiritual - and advocacy group Hoosier Jews for Choice have argued that state’s ban infringes on their beliefs. Their lawsuit specifically highlights the Jewish teaching that a fetus becomes a living person at birth and that Jewish law prioritises the mother’s life and health.
A court ruling siding with the women was appealed by the Indiana attorney general's office, which is asking the state Supreme Court to consider the case.
In Kentucky, three Jewish women sued, claiming the state’s ban violates their religious rights under the state’s constitution and religious freedom law. They allege that Kentucky’s Republican-dominated legislature “imposed sectarian theology” by prohibiting nearly all abortions. The ban remains in effect while the Kentucky Supreme Court considers a separate case challenging the law.
But Banker said Missouri’s lawsuit is unique because while plaintiffs in other states claimed harm, “we are saying that the whole law violates separation of church and state and we’re seeking to get everything struck down.”