When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law one of the toughest abortion bans in the country, the response was swift. Planned Parenthood, abortion rights groups, civil rights organizations and doctors across the state came together and filed a lawsuit to block the action.
The backlash was hardly a surprise – the law, widely seen as draconian, makes no exceptions for rape or incest, while setting the bar high for doctors concerned about the life of the mother.
What followed, however, was unexpected — as seven Florida clergy filed separate lawsuits using a new legal argument crafted by a Montclair-based law firm.
The clergy – two Christians, three Jews, a Buddhist and a Unitarian Universalist – argue that the law infringes on their right to practice their religious beliefs, restricting their ability to counsel pregnant women based on their religion and exposing them to criminal repercussions.
The argument aims to overturn a narrative that often presents opposition to abortion as the only religious view. Many Christian groups have used the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – legislation in 21 states, including Florida – to successfully assert that their religious freedoms are threatened by access to abortion and birth control. The costume worn by Florida the clergy reverses this equation.
“In this case, we’re using it the other way around,” said David Harrison, whose firm, Spiro Harrison, represents Florida clergy. “By imposing these state laws which are based on fundamental Christian beliefs, as life begins at conception, you are imposing your religion on us and it undermines our free practice of our religion. We should be able to practice our religion according to our teachings and guidelines.
The cases landed in Harrison’s practice through the firm’s satellite location in Miami, where another of the firm’s partners, Danielle Moriber, is spearheading the case. She is largely responsible, he said, for crafting a strategy that will likely be used when lawsuits emerge in other states with equally restrictive abortion bans.
At the very least, the trials in Florida, bringing together seemingly disparate clergy, reflect the complexity and diversity of views and practices not just across religions, but within religions. Jewish interpretations, for example, cover ideologies and denominations, although Jewish law states that the life of the fetus begins at birth.
Under Florida law, anyone who counsels or encourages a woman to have an abortion can be charged with “aiding and abetting.” And so, at stake, according to the lawsuits, is one of the most sacred responsibilities of a member of the clergy – to provide counsel to the faithful.
The ban, according to the suits, “devalues the quality of life and health of the pregnant woman or girl. It is in direct conflict with the clerical obligations and faith of the applicant and imposes severe barriers and substantial burdens on his religious belief, his speech and his conduct.”
“What if a member of the clergy advises a woman to consider abortion because of her own health risks?” said Harrison. “We believe there is a risk that under this law they could be subject to criminal prosecution, which threatens their freedom of expression and religious freedom.”
Winning the case poses challenges, according to Ariel Alvarez, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University.
“If the law is challenged on the basis that it violates the religious practices portion of the free exercise clause, the court applies the rational basis test, which is a low bar,” Alvarez said. “The government only has to show that there was a rational basis for the law.”
Montclair’s Harrison says his new approach to the case breaks through stereotypes and the idea that people of the same faith think and practice their beliefs in parallel, across a range of issues.
“Not all Christians are opposed to a woman’s right to choose or, say, think same-sex marriage is wrong,” he said. “These are not beliefs on a Christian scale.”
Although the religious freedom of worshipers is not the focus of the lawsuits, by limiting a clergy member’s ability to provide advice, the ban also affects the rights of women who look to their rabbi or minister for advice, Harrison added.