Jews, Muslims and others say Roe v. Wade reversal threatens their religious freedom

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

"If the Dobbs decision was based on an evangelical understanding of when life begins, then that's a slippery slope," said Rahmah Abdulaleem, executive director of Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. "Muslims don't drink at bars, but we don't say you can't. We need to respect the diversity of faiths."

Jews in particular are waking up to what abortion restrictions at the state level could mean for their religious freedom, said Rachel Laser, the first Jewish president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group founded primarily by Protestants in 1947 in response to a Supreme Court decision allowing indirect support of religious education.

"A lot of us don't necessarily on a conscious level equate our views toward reproductive justice with Judaism, but there is a growing recognition that there is a dissonance between the moral code being imposed by our government and the moral code that is still rooted in many of the values of Judaism," Laser said.

Jewish laws outlining the circumstances under which abortion is permitted go back to the Second century, and in the more recent past, Jews have been among the most ardent supporters of abortion rights in America. In a 2014 Pew survey, 83% of Jewish respondents agreed that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 62% of all Americans today.

"In Jewish law, life comes before everything, and when it comes to matters of maternal health, the life and health of the mother always comes before the potential life of the fetus as a general rule," said Daphne Lazar Price, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. "Jewish texts don't look at the number of weeks or trimesters — until the fetus emerges from the womb, the mother's life is privileged."

Lazar Price says this perspective is religious, not political.


"It's not partisan; it's about the health of the mother," she said.

Michael Helfand, a professor at Pepperdine University's Caruso School of Law, says Jews are well positioned to argue that abortion restrictions violate an individual's religious liberties, especially in states where so-called religious freedom restoration laws provide heightened protections for religious exercise.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed by Congress in 1993 with overwhelming bipartisan support after the Supreme Court ruled against two Indigenous Americans who were denied unemployment benefits by the state of Oregon after being fired from their jobs for consuming peyote as part of a religious ceremony.

Peyote was not legal in Oregon, but the men argued that their use of the plant — revered as sacred medicine and taken in an all-night ritual accompanied by instruments and song — was protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court said that because peyote was illegal for everyone in the state, the law did not target those who use it in religious ceremonies, so it was acceptable for the state to deny them unemployment benefits.


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