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'Wake-up call.' Judge rejects effort to overturn MO abortion ban on religious grounds

Kacen Bayless, The Kansas City Star on

Published in Political News

COLUMBIA, Mo. — After a Missouri judge rejected an effort to strike down the state’s abortion ban on religious freedom grounds, the possibility of overturning the ban could hinge on a statewide vote in November.

St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Jason Sengheiser on Friday ruled against a lawsuit brought by more than a dozen progressive faith leaders who argued that state lawmakers imposed their religious beliefs on Missourians when they passed the ban.

Friday’s ruling came just more than a week before the two-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, which opened the door for Missouri’s near-total abortion ban.

The Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist leaders had sought a permanent injunction barring the state from enforcing the ban and a declaration that provisions of the law violated the state constitution’s separation of church and state.

Sengheiser disagreed and sided with the defendants, which included the state of Missouri.

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

The lawsuit was part of a national trend from progressive religious leaders who are challenging statewide abortion bans on religious freedom grounds.

Representatives for the plaintiffs have said that they could appeal Sengheiser’s decision or ask him to reconsider. However, the ruling emphasized the idea that a statewide vote may be abortion rights supporters’ best shot at striking down the ban.

“Missourians should take this decision as a wake-up call about the importance of this ballot measure,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

Friday’s ruling comes as a coalition of Missouri abortion rights groups is mounting an ambitious campaign to overturn the ban through a statewide vote. The campaign last month turned in more than 380,000 petition signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

If election officials verify the coalition has enough, Missourians will vote on the constitutional amendment in November.

Despite pointing to the potential statewide vote, Laser added in her statement that the legal fight against the abortion ban “isn’t done and could also overturn the ban.”

Laser said that Sengheiser’s ruling “makes clear that he thought the case was a close call and ‘presents an extremely difficult question.’”

“But voters could answer all those difficult questions and restore reproductive and religious freedom in Missouri by passing the ballot measure,” she said.

K.M. Bell, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said that the faith leaders have three options: Ask Sengheiser to reconsider his decision, appeal the ruling with the Missouri Supreme Court or take no action and end the case.

 

“Whatever petitioners and the courts do next, if the people of Missouri vote yes on the Missouri Right to Reproductive Freedom Amendment in November, that would also put an end to this case by overturning Missouri’s total abortion ban,” Bell said.

In a statement shortly after Friday’s ruling, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, a defendant in the case, championed Sengheiser’s ruling. He made no mention of the potential statewide vote.

“Today is a major win for women and their unborn children as a Missouri court sided with our office yet again in our efforts to defend the sanctity of life,” said Bailey, a Republican. “My office will continue to use every tool at its disposal to protect the unborn. Our children are worth the fight.”

The lawsuit, filed last year in St. Louis Circuit Court, argues the abortion ban forces lawmakers’ religious beliefs on Missourians and violates the separation of church and state. It was filed on behalf of 14 religious leaders from various Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist denominations.

The suit highlighted a slew of Missouri lawmakers who made religious comments in favor of enacting the ban in 2019, including Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, a Scott City Republican who was a member of the Missouri House at the time.

“I do truly understand the many, difficult choices that have been talked about today, but to me, 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,” Rehder said on the House floor in 2019.

“To me, life begins at conception, and my God doesn’t give that option.”

In court last year, Kalli Joslin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, pointed to the religious motivations behind the ban.

“If a law’s predominant purpose is to impose religious beliefs, that is clearly unconstitutional,” Joslin said.

While Missouri has grown staunchly Republican over the past decade, abortion rights remain popular in the state. Some anti-abortion Republicans have acknowledged that a majority of Missourians would likely vote to overturn the ban.

A survey of likely Missouri voters released in March by Saint Louis University and British pollster YouGov found that 44% of Missourians supported the proposed ballot question while 37% disagreed.

The remaining 19% said they were not sure, a percentage of voters that abortion rights supporters will have to tap into.

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©2024 The Kansas City Star. Visit kansascity.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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