Oral arguments heard Thursday in lawsuit to strike Missouri’s abortion law
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - More than a year after Missouri’s near-total ban on abortion went into effect, oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by several religious leaders seeking to strike it down were heard Thursday in St. Louis Circuit Court.
Missouri implemented a ban on the procedure with no exceptions for rape or incest following the U.S. Supreme Court overturning in June 2022 of Roe. Vs. Wade. Prior to that legislation, lawmakers for years had enacted various restriction on the procedure, all but eliminating abortion in the state.
In Traci Blackmon vs. Missouri, the petitioners, made up of 13 Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist leaders who support abortion, argue the state’s ban from the moment of fertilization violates the Establishment Clause of the Missouri Constitution.
The state, whose motion for a judgment on the pleadings was the reason for the Thursday hearing, argues the law is secular.
The petitioners argue several lawmakers invoked their religious beliefs during debate. Those beliefs are not held by all faiths, the petitioners argue, citing Jewish beliefs that life begins at first breath and Islamic beliefs a “soul” is not present until about 120 days into pregnancy.
They cite language in the underlying bills, such as HB 126, which reads “God is the author of life” and “the life of each human being begins at conception.” The petition quotes several lawmakers, such as Rep. Ben Baker, who during debate said life stems from a creator and begins at the moment of conception.
“Ladies and gentlemen, from the one-cell stage at the moment of conception, you were already there,” Baker said according to the petition. “We just couldn’t see you yet. And what makes you valuable is that you equally share the image of our Creator. You are His work of art. And the masterpiece of your life will only happen if you allow it to develop.”
For the state, Maria Lanahan argued what lawmakers voiced during debate on the legislation is protected speech and does not represent all the legislators in the general assembly. She compared the abortion debate in the general assembly to that of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, saying religious arguments on both sides encompassed that legislation.
“The bill passed by far more than the number of legislators that were making comments,” Lanahan told the court. “And the comments don’t show that the legislators wanted to impose their religion on others, only that the legislation was in harmony with these legislators’ religion. There is no functional difference between the comments made during this debate and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
If every law with a religious basis violated principles of church and state, it would be “anarchy,” the state argued.
Americans United for Separation of Church & State and the National Women’s Law Center are representing the religious leaders in the case. Attorney K.M. Bell during the hearing said while lawmakers have rights to exercise their preferred faith, that doesn’t apply to actions taken in the public interest such as casting a vote.
“We certainly do not disagree that individual lawmakers haver free speech rights and they have free exercise rights,” Bell said. “But their act of voting is not an act of individuals. They are exercising their legislative power.”
The hearing Thursday was a motion hearing on a request by the state for a judgment on the pleadings – that the facts set forth the by petitioners themselves show the case has no legal merit. The request came after an earlier motion to dismiss by the state was denied in June by St. Louis Circuit Judge Jason Sengheiser.
Sengheiser said following the hearing it will likely be early next year, however, before he issues a ruling.
If he sides with the state, that will end the litigation. If he rules in favor of the petitioners, the lawsuit will continue through the courts.
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