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St. Louis judge rules against faith leaders’ challenge to Missouri abortion law

Rabbi Susan Talve joins hands with other faith leaders during a march to the Circuit Court in St. Louis. Talve wears a silky blue and white stole around her shoulders.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Rabbi Susan Talve of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis was one of the plaintiffs in a suit that aimed to overturn Missouri's abortion ban. A group of faith leaders sued the state in 2023, claiming its ban violated freedom of religion laws.

A circuit court judge in St. Louis has sided with the state in ruling that Missouri’s near-total abortion ban does not violate laws establishing freedom of religion.

The National Women’s Law Center and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed the lawsuit on behalf of area faith leaders in 2023. In it, lawyers for 14 clergy members argued that the abortion ban, put in place mere minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, violated the state’s constitution with language that stated life begins at conception.

Judge Jason Sengheiser of the 22nd Circuit Court on Friday rebutted that claim, stating that although that idea can be a religiously supported belief, it can also be a medical and scientific one.

“The plain language of the challenged provisions stating that life begins at conception do not do so in religious terms,” Sengheiser wrote in his ruling. “While the determination that life begins at conception may run counter to some religious beliefs, it is not itself necessarily a religious belief. As such, it does not prevent all men and women from worshiping Almighty God or not worshiping according to the dictates of their own consciences.”

Sengheiser added it was not up to the court to make a judgment on the soundness of the abortion policy. Instead, the question was only whether the policy violated the constitution.

The judge also didn’t agree with the religious leaders’ claim in the original suit that the references to “Almighty God” violated constitutional freedom of religion laws. Other legislative documents, including the Declaration of Independence and Missouri’s constitution itself, have made references to God in the past, he wrote. Saying the language was unlawful would call into question whether those documents were also unconstitutional, Sengheiser wrote.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, whose office defended the law, cheered the decision.

“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,” Bailey said in a statement. “Having lost a child, this issue is personal for me. My office will continue to use every tool at its disposal to protect the unborn. Our children are worth the fight.”

The legal team at Americans United said it disagrees with Sengheiser’s ruling and is “discussing next steps” with the plaintiffs. The group could appeal the decision.

“Missouri’s abortion ban is a direct attack on the separation of church and state, religious freedom and reproductive freedom,” organization representatives said in a statement. “Missouri lawmakers made clear that they were imposing their personal religious beliefs on all Missourians when they enacted these laws. We remain committed to restoring abortion access in Missouri.”

Missouri was the first state to enact an abortion ban after the high court overturned Roe v. Wade, a decision that handed the right to outlaw abortions back to individual states.

The law restricts all abortions except ones performed if a mother is medically at risk.

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.