North Texas ministers: Abortion bans violate religious freedom of Methodists

Texas’ near-total abortion ban and its so-called ‘bounty’ law have had a chilling effect on the ability of Methodist ministers to counsel pregnant parishioners in accordance with the doctrine of their faith, according to a letter sent on behalf of four North Texas members. United Methodist ministers.

The ministers argue that two Texas laws expose them to potential criminal and civil liability if they offer advice and guidance that leads a parishioner to terminate her pregnancy in accordance with The principles of The United Methodist Church.

They say it violates a state law prohibiting any government agency from “substantially influencing” a person’s free exercise of religion.

“They are torn,” said Sean McCaffity, a lawyer for the ministers. “Are you giving advice that may in fact be in accordance with your religious principles, but are you also exposing your parishioner or member or the person seeking your advice to potential criminal liability? And how do you balance that with being a loyal leader? »

The fundamental policy statement of The United Methodist Church says that there are times when the life of the mother and the life of the fetus are in conflict, and this creates circumstances where the termination of a pregnancy is morally and religiously justified.

Ministers also argue that the religious rights of Basic Methodists are curtailed. The church teaches that decisions about terminating a pregnancy “should be prayerfully considered and resolved on an individual level,” the letter says. But the state ban on abortion prevents it.

The ministers are the Reverend Katie Newsome of Union Mission Congregation, which runs the philanthropic Union cafe; Reverend Phil Dieke of White Rock United Methodist Church; Reverend Rachel Baughman of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church; and Reverend Sheron Patterson of Hamilton Park United Methodist Church.

They sent the letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday.

At the court of Paxton

In a legal opinion released shortly after Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Paxton declared its commitment to making abortion illegal in the state.

“My office is specifically authorized to prosecute and collect … civil penalties, and I will strictly enforce this law,” he wrote. “In addition, we will assist any local prosecutor who brings criminal charges.”

It is unclear exactly how this will play out. KERA contacted Paxton’s office but received no comment.

“It remains to be seen how aggressive the attorney general will be,” in enforcing the law, McCaffity said. “And for everything to have a paralyzing effect and a moderating effect, or, in the words of the [Texas] The law on the restoration of religious freedom hinders the free exercise of a religion. »

This law requires plaintiffs to send a letter notifying the state of a violation of religious protections before they can sue the state.

Paxton, a Republican, has advocated for religious freedom in the past. But McCaffity said he did not expect the attorney general to grant the exception sought by his clients. They will decide to proceed after reading Paxton’s response to the letter.

“We are interested to see what the Attorney General does and says,” he said.

Social principles

The United Methodist Church describes its values ​​in a document called Social principles. They affirm conditional support for access to abortion, but generally guide the faithful to avoid abortion and support those seeking abortion to find alternatives.

“Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to endorse abortion. But we are also obligated to respect the sanctity of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. “, declare the Social Principles of the Church. “We recognize the tragic conflicts of life with life which can justify abortion, and in such cases, we support the legal option of abortion within the framework of appropriate medical procedures by certified medical providers.”

More relevant to the legal challenge offered by the letter, the Social Principles state that “a decision regarding abortion should be made only after thoughtful and godly consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral and other appropriate”.

The North Texas ministers argue in their letter that the state’s abortion law now prevents them from freely offering that pastoral counseling their faith calls them to provide.

Legal Concerns

Ministers call for HB 1280, a law that makes almost all abortions a crime“significantly hinders the free exercise of these religious beliefs by preventing access to this care, in most cases”.

The law was “triggered” by the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning constitutional protections for abortion access and went into effect Aug. 25.

“These faith leaders cannot provide full pastoral care to their congregations as dictated by The United Methodist Church and Social Principles because it now violates HB 1280 or is consistent with breaking the law,” the letter reads.

The letter goes on to claim that the law violates the individual rights of the three female ministers who, as individual members of The United Methodist Church, cannot obtain a legal abortion in Texas, even though their faith tells them that “decisions life-related versus life-related conflicts need to be prayerfully examined and resolved on an individual level.

The letter also aims to Senate Bill 8, the so-called “Bounties Law” passed in 2021, which bans abortions after around six weeks of pregnancy. The law also allows anyone – even people outside of Texas – to sue someone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance of an abortion” and be awarded a minimum of $10,000. damages.

“The ‘helping and abetting’ language is broad enough to capture and include faithful pastoral care that can encourage or support decisions that lead a person to seek and perform an abortion as described in the law,” the letter states.

Religious arguments

Methodist ministers are not the only church leaders to challenge abortion restrictions on religious liberty grounds.

In Florida, a synagogue sued the state in June on a new law that prohibits abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. They claimed the law prevented pregnant Jews from freely practicing their faith.

“I think there’s a next challenge to the statutes from that perspective,” McCaffity said.

Elizabeth Sepper, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin Law School, said religious objections to abortion bans like these highlight the wide range of religious perspectives on abortion and how prohibitions affect the free exercise of religion.

But Sepper, who focuses on religious freedom, health rights and equality, thinks there are weaknesses in the ministers’ case.

The Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1999, allows restrictions on religious practice, as long as the restriction is “in pursuit of a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive way to promote this interest. Paxton could argue that the state has a compelling interest in preserving fetal life.

The letter reflects the current lack of clarity around Texas abortion law, Sepper said. It has not been fully settled whether someone can be prosecuted for helping someone access an out-of-state abortion. The ministers say they face the chilling effect of the possibility of criminal or civil punishment if, with their advice, parishioners choose to leave the state to terminate a pregnancy.

“Usually criminal laws don’t apply extraterritorially, but people may be right to be concerned about what the limits will be in the future of these abortion bans in Texas,” Sepper said.

She thinks the argument that all Methodists should be exempt from Texas abortion laws is a significant weak point, because the three women arguing the case aren’t claiming they’re pregnant or currently trying to conceive. abort.

Sepper noted that in recent years, conservative groups have won major victories in causes championed by the religious right using religious freedom claims.

“We’ve seen a kind of supercharged religious freedom doctrine and one of the questions these lawsuits ask is, ‘Is this religious freedom only for conservatives? Is it only for those who oppose reproductive health care and LGBTQ rights?” Sepper said. “We don’t have an answer to that question yet, but I think we’re going to start to see something from the courts in this regard.”

Do you have any advice? Email Christopher Connelly at cconnelly@kera.org or Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org.

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About Charles D. Goolsby

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