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Missouri abortion ban wasn’t about lawmakers imposing religious beliefs, judge says

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A judge in Missouri says lawmakers who passed a restrictive abortion ban were not trying to impose their religious beliefs on everyone in the state, rejecting a case filed by more than a dozen Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist leaders who support abortion rights.

The groups sought a permanent injunction last year barring Missouri from enforcing its abortion law and a declaration that provisions violate the state Constitution.

One section of the statute at issue reads: “In recognition that Almighty God is the author of life, that all men and women are ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life.’”

Judge Jason Sengheiser said in his ruling Friday that there is similar language in the preamble to the Missouri Constitution, which expresses “profound reverence for the Supreme Ruler of the Universe.” The rest of the challenged provisions contain no explicit religious language, he said.

“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. “As such, it does not prevent all men and women from worshipping Almighty God or not worshipping according to the dictates of their own consciences.”

The Americans United for Separation of Church & State and the National Women’s Law Center, who sued on behalf of the religious leaders, responded in a joint statement that they were considering their legal options.

“Missouri’s abortion ban is a direct attack on the separation of church and state, religious freedom and reproductive freedom,” the statement said.

Attorneys for the state have countered that just because some supporters of the law oppose abortion on religious grounds doesn’t mean that the law forces their beliefs on anyone else.

Sengheiser added that the state has historically sought to restrict and criminalize abortion, citing statutes that are more than a century old. “Essentially, the only thing that changed is that Roe was reversed, opening the door to this further regulation,” he said.

Within minutes of the 2022 Supreme Court decision, then-Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Gov. Mike Parson, both Republicans, filed paperwork to immediately enact a 2019 law prohibiting abortions “except in cases of medical emergency.” That law contained a provision making it effective only if Roe v. Wade was overturned.

The law makes it a felony punishable by five to 15 years in prison to perform or induce an abortion. Medical professionals who do so also could lose their licenses. The law says that women who undergo abortions cannot be prosecuted.

Missouri already had some of the nation’s more restrictive abortion laws and had seen a significant decline in the number of abortions performed, with residents instead traveling to clinics just across the state line in Illinois and Kansas.

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This story has been updated to correct that Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, not 2023.

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