Lawsuit seeks to overturn Missouri abortion ban as violation of religious rights

St. Louis case argues state constitution’s separation of church and state protects abortion rights

By: - January 19, 2023 7:49 pm

Rev. Traci Blackmon speaks Thursday during a news conference in St. Louis announcing a lawsuit challenging Missouri’s abortion ban (photo submittted).

When Missouri lawmakers put the words “Almighty God is the author of life” into the section of law stating the General Assembly’s intent for abortion regulations, they crossed the line separating church and state, a lawsuit filed Thursday in St. Louis charges.

Thirteen Christian and Jewish leaders are suing the state and six elected prosecutors from most of the state’s largest counties to block enforcement of the abortion ban that took effect in June after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

The lawsuit, filed in St. Louis Circuit Court, argues that the law violates the Missouri Constitution’s provisions separating church and state.

“Our elected officials have violated their oath to uphold that constitution by weaponizing religious beliefs to deny abortion access in a state where studies prove these actions are not the will of the majority of the people,” said Rev. Traci Blackmon, the lead plaintiff, speaking at a news conference Thursday

Blackmon is associate general minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ and senior pastor of Christ The King United Church of Christ in Florissant. The lawsuit is being sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the National Women’s Law Center.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the nation, to test an abortion ban as an invasion of religious liberty based on the provisions of a state constitution, Denise Lieberman, the Missouri attorney who worked on the petition with lawyers for the national groups, said in an interview with The Independent.

“The underlying purpose of Missouri’s abortion ban and its accompanying restrictions is unambiguously religious in nature,” Lieberman said.

In the 83-page petition, the plaintiffs are asking the court to issue a permanent injunction blocking enforcement of the challenged law and to declare the challenged provisions of law unconstitutional.

Under Missouri’s trigger law passed in 2019, abortions will only be permitted in cases of a medical emergency. There are no exceptions for rape or incest under the law. 

Health care providers who violate the law can be guilty of a class B felony, which can result in five to 15 years in prison, and have their medical license suspended or revoked.

“During the legislative debates over (the 2019 bill), Missouri legislators expressly stated their intent to impose on Missourians of all faiths a specifically conservative Christian, religious view about the beginning of life,” the lawsuit states.

The 2019 bill passed on almost pure party line votes, with all but one legislative Republican supporting it and all but one Democrat opposed. Republicans in Jefferson City were quick to defend the law and deny that it violated the constitution.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he didn’t think the lawsuit would succeed during his weekly legislative news conference, calling it “foolish.”

Rowden, who had a career as a religious musician before entering politics, said his vote was not based on his personal religious beliefs.

“We were acting on the belief that life is precious and should be treated as such,” Rowden said. “I don’t think that’s a religious belief. And I think people need to understand what separation of church and state is. Most people don’t.”

The petition filed Thursday cites several times lawmakers stated during debate that they looked to their religious beliefs to inform their vote on the bill. The attorneys who filed the case listened to dozens of hours of recorded debate and committee testimony in preparation for the filing. 

“So I had to make a decision on when I believe(d) that life was present,” the lawsuit quotes from state Rep. Barry Hovis, R-Cape Girardeau. “And being from the Biblical side of it, I’ve always believed that life does occur at the point of conception.”

The Missouri Constitution’s Bill of Rights has three provisions protecting religious freedom that are far more detailed than the federal constitution. The lawsuit alleges the abortion law violates the provision against an establishment of religion, the provision prohibiting the state from compelling any person to support a particular religious belief and the provision against state aid in support of any church, denomination or sect.

“The explicit invocations of conservative Christian notions of ‘conception’ and sanctity of life in the text and legislative debate (of the trigger law) to justify banning abortion impose these particular religious beliefs on all Missourians, coercing people and faith communities with different beliefs and commitments to adhere to religious requirements of a faith that is not their own,” the petition states.

In a statement promising a vigorous defense of the law, Attorney General Andrew Bailey, a Republican,  said that in a 1980 ruling on Medicaid funding for abortions, “the United States Supreme Court rejected arguments like those raised in this case, and the Missouri Attorney General’s Office has won on similar claims at the Missouri Supreme Court.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling is irrelevant, Lieberman said. The case will be tried based on Missouri’s religious freedom provisions, and does not invoke any federal constitutional violations, Lieberman said.

“Those protections are very, very clear that the wall between church and state is high,” she said, “and it is not porous.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.