Abortion Bans Undermine Church-State Separation

When state legislators give their personal religious doctrine the force of law, they violate America’s promise to protect everyone’s religious freedom.
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Abortion bans impose on everyone the narrow religious doctrine of a few. These bans violate the separation of church and state. 

Reproductive freedom and religious freedom are intertwined. When your most intimate, personal decisions are held hostage to intolerant religious beliefs you are not free. 

The American legal system has adopted a taboo against mentioning religion in legal cases involving abortion. Lawyers and judges go out of their way to avoid discussing religion and religious motivations for abortion restrictions, and treat abortion bans as if they are religiously neutral. Only rarely is someone willing to shatter this polite fiction—to cry out that the emperor has no clothes. If they did, it would quickly become obvious that these bans give the force of law to one narrow religious doctrine. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor broke the spell during oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. “How is your interest anything but a religious view?” Sotomayor asked the lawyer for the state of Mississippi, “… when you say [abortion] is the only right that takes away from the state the ability to protect a life, that’s a religious view, isn’t it?” Mississippi had no answer. 

Other states’ abortion bans likewise impose a narrow religious doctrine on every citizen. For instance, Missouri’s abortion ban openly declares “that Almighty God is the author of life” (a phrase that one lawmaker who opposed the ban correctly noted was “itself … in violation of the separation of church and state.”) Missouri legislators weren’t shy about this when passing the state’s sweeping abortion ban. One legislator supported the ban saying, “God doesn’t give us a choice in this area. He is the Creator of life,” and because, “Life begins at conception. Psalms 119 says ‘Your hands made me, and formed me.’” Another legislator justified the ban because, “being from the biblical side of it, I’ve always believed that life does occur at the point of conception.” They have literally enshrined their holy books, their religious beliefs, and their religion into the law, with one lawmaker asserting, “as a Catholic I do believe life begins at conception. That is built into our legislative findings currently in law…”

As a Jefferson City Baptist minister observed during these debates, Missouri’s abortion ban is “Christian Nationalism.”

That’s why Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the National Women’s Law Center, leading experts in religious freedom and gender justice, are challenging Missouri’s draconian abortion ban on behalf of thirteen clergy from six different denominations. Our plaintiffs include an Episcopal bishop, an orthodox Jewish maharat, a United Methodist pastor and state legislator, as well as Reform rabbis and United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist ministers, to name a few. Fittingly, we filed this suit just days after National Religious Freedom Day and just before the fiftieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade

But our lawsuit isn’t looking to nullify the ban only for those whose religion mandates otherwise. Instead, we’re challenging the entire ban because when state legislators give their personal religious doctrine the force of law, they violate America’s promise to separate church and state and protect everyone’s religious freedom, from the devout to the nonbeliever. That’s why so many religious leaders are suing. And it’s why the entire ban has got to go.

The separation of church and state shields our shared laws from the influence of any one religion. It frees us to come together as equals and build a stronger democracy. America needs a national re-commitment to this separation. Let’s start with Missouri.

This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.

Rachel Laser

Rachel Laser

Rachel Laser is the president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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