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A Rabbi, a Priest, and a Buddhist Lama...Gather to Sue Florida Over Its Abortion Ban

Seven clergy members from five different religions claim that Florida's 15-week abortion ban violates their religious freedom rights.

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On August 1, seven clergy members from five different religious backgrounds filed lawsuits against the state of Florida in an attempt to overturn its increasingly restrictive regulations around abortion, claiming that the law violates their first amendment right to religious freedom. HB 5, or the Reducing Fetal and Infant Mortality Act, which went into effect on July 1, cut down Florida’s 24-week abortion ban to a mere 15 weeks, with very few exceptions. As Reuters reports, the plaintiffs include “three Jewish rabbis, a United Church of Christ reverend, a Unitarian Universalist minister, an Episcopal Church priest and a Buddhist lama.”

All filed within Miami-Dade County, the lawsuits argue that HB 5 poses “substantial” and “severe” burdens to individuals’ ability to practice their beliefs, and “potential” burdens on clergy leaders to soundly advise their clergy members. Because there are so few exceptions to the 15-week abortion ban—cases of rape, incest, and human trafficking are not included—religious leaders may face criminal charges for counseling women, girls, and their families about their options if their pregnancies do not fit the narrow criteria for termination.

Yesterday’s lawsuits follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Barry Silver of the Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor of Boynton Beach, Florida, who similarly sued the state in June for the law’s violation of Jewish beliefs, which state that abortion is “required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman.” According to Rabbi Silver, the new law is not only a display of “government intrusion,” but an infringement upon individuals’ “privacy rights.” The case is still pending and is being handled separately from the Miami-Dade County lawsuits.

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Religion has long been the grounds for anti-abortion arguments, with the Reagan administration’s Republican party adopting it as a key issue in the 1970s in order to appeal to white Evangelical voters. Ever since Roe v. Wade granted people the federal right to an abortion in 1973, the religious right has been relentless in their acts of anti-abortion terrorism, from damaging abortion clinics, to harassing abortion seekers, to even threatening and taking the lives of abortion providers themselves. But as Jezebel’s Gabrielle Bruney has reported, abortion has always been a fundamentally American practice: “Despite a raft of state laws between 1820 and 1880 criminalizing them, by the end of that century, doctors believed that 2 million abortions were being performed annually in the United States—which would have made the procedure far more commonplace than it is today,” she writes.

HB 5 obviously puts pregnant Floridians in a fraught place. Before Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed the bill in April, Florida was considered somewhat of an abortion haven in the Southeast. The state’s original 24-week ban was far less restrictive than the abortion bans in nearby states, and with the federal reversal of Roe v. Wade thanks to the June 24 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health ruling, pregnant people are seeing fewer and fewer options to access safe, legal abortions.

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Despite Florida’s conservative reputation, faith leaders aren’t the only ones using their institutional power to protect those under them. Almost immediately after Roe’s reversal, Disney assured its employees via an internal memo that it would cover travel and medical costs if they needed to seek an abortion out of state, emphasizing a commitment to “removing barriers and providing comprehensive access to quality and affordable care.”

And while this added pressure by community leaders on state legislature proves that there is power in numbers, this might just be enough to stoke the fire—and not in a good way. This series of lawsuits (and those like it) could be the last straw for the state supreme court, which currently holds a conservative supermajority, to decide that abortion actually isn’t protected under the state’s right to privacy. We’ll await the rulings with bated breath.