Hartmann: A Faithful Defense of the Right to an Abortion

A new Missouri lawsuit stands up to zealots who would impose their religion on the rest of us

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click to enlarge The Reverend Traci Blackmon of the United Church of Christ is one of 13 plaintiffs on a suit filed against Missouri's strict abortion ban today.
Courtesy Americans United for Separation of Church and State
The Reverend Traci Blackmon of the United Church of Christ is one of 13 plaintiffs on a suit filed against Missouri's strict abortion ban today.

Thank God for the pro-choice faith leaders of Missouri.

More than a dozen clergy members of multiple faiths have stepped forward with a lawsuit challenging Missouri’s oppressive laws banning abortion. The case, a national initiative of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, seeks to send an essential message to those who oppose abortion:

Keep your religion to yourself.

The lawsuit filed last week brings a novel approach to defending reproductive freedom for Missouri women. It doesn’t stop at arguing that laws trying to govern bodies are discriminatory. It goes further to claim that such laws constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S.

Constitution, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Anti-abortion laws, the lawsuit argues, were motivated by — and steeped in — religious viewpoints.

The lawsuit “is the first of its kind in the nation in that it makes an Establishment Clause claim and not just a discrimination claim,” says Denise Lieberman, a prominent civil-liberties attorney serving as local counsel.

It’s obvious that Missouri lawmakers were intent on imposing as statute their own religious views as to the origin of life, among other opinions advanced by their faiths. That’s precisely what is forbidden by both the U.S. and state constitutions.

“[This] law favors one religion over another,” Lieberman tells me. “By referencing God as the creator and defining life as beginning at conception, Missouri favors one religious viewpoint over another.

“That permeates the abortion law and the restrictions that flow from it. And it violates the Missouri Constitution which affords stronger protections than the U.S. Constitution.”

(The Missouri constitution has three separate constitutional provisions prohibiting the establishment of religion, which the Missouri Supreme Court have interpreted as being more protective of the separation of church and state than the federal constitution.)

Missouri is the perfect place to make that claim. Our state’s politicians didn’t stop at running afoul of the basic tenet that government remain separate from religion. They stomped on it with glee.

The 85-page brief is teeming with examples of legislators damning themselves. They proclaimed their disregard for separation of church and state with the full-throated exhilaration of a church choir.

It can be left to philosophers and historians of another time to analyze whether these bozos were too stupid or too zealous to refrain from admitting out loud what they were doing. But this much is clear: They did admit it.

Whether courts will allow the Missouri General Assembly to get away with converting the state to its contorted interpretation of Christianity remains to be seen. But legislators were motivated by religion, as laid out in the plaintiffs’ brief:

“Attacks on abortion access reached their nadir in 2019, when Governor (Mike) Parson signed into law House Bill No. 126. 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. 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’”

There was no shortage of smoking guns to cite in the brief:

  • The bill’s lead sponsor, Representative Nick Schroer, explained that “as a Catholic, I do believe life begins at conception and that is built into our legislative findings.”
  • One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Representative Barry Hovis, stated that he was motivated “from the Biblical side of it . . . life does occur at the point of conception.”
  • Another co-sponsor, Representative Ben Baker, stated: “From the one-cell stage at the moment of conception, you were already there . . . you equally share the image of our Creator . . . you are His work of art.”
But all the hallelujahs cannot go to the men who led the charge to obliterate the rights of Missouri women. One of the stars of the show is indeed a woman, state Senator Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Sikeston. Thompson Rehder was preaching as a member of the House at the time H.B. 126 was debated.

As the lawsuit notes, she urged passage of the bill “by exhorting her colleagues: ‘God doesn’t give us a choice in this area. He is the creator of life. And I, being made in His image and likeness, don’t get to choose to take that away, no matter how that child came to be. To me, life begins at conception, and my God doesn’t give that option.’”

That wasn’t all she was kind enough to share from her God: “Life begins at conception. Psalms 119 says ‘Your hands made me and formed me.’ That’s the very initial stages ... to stand on the floor and say ‘How could we make someone look at a child from rape or incest, and to care for them?’ I can say how we can do that. We can do that with the love of God that he puts in our hearts for those children.”

I’m not one to police pronouns, but what do you mean “we,” strange lady?

But pay no attention to my views on women’s reproductive rights. Take note instead of the words of: the Reverend Traci Blackmon; the Reverend Barbara Phifer; Maharat Rori Picker Neiss; the Reverend Molly Housh Gordon; the right Reverend Deon K. Johnson, Eleventh Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri; Rabbi James Bennett; the Reverend Holly McKissick; the Reverend Krista Taves; the Reverend Cynthia S. Bumb; Rabbi Susan Talve; Rabbi Douglas Alpert; the Reverend Janice Barnes; and Rabbi Andrea Goldstein.

They are the plaintiffs with the courage to stand up to politicians who would impose their religions upon Missouri women. Unlike the politicians, these are actual people of faith, as opposed to lawmakers using religiosity — often through warped misinterpretations — for the unholy purpose of vote-getting.

The faith leaders’ words need to be heard far and wide: “Healthy pluralism is at grave risk. Many people of faith support abortion access not despite, but because of, their religion. Among them are [the] Plaintiffs in this case — an interdenominational coalition of clergy who, consistent with their faith traditions, oppose the Legislature’s explicit preference for and establishment in law of others’ religious beliefs about abortion. Collectively, [the] Plaintiffs, like other clergy and faith communities all across this State, have through their work providing care, counseling, teaching, and preaching, spent decades countering the false but all too common assertion that faith and abortion access are incompatible.”

Yes, religious faith and abortion access are entirely compatible. It’s religious zealotry and government that are not.

Ray Hartmann founded the
Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network.


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