Synagogue sues Florida, claiming abortion restrictions violate religious freedoms

Religion, particularly the influence of Christian conservatives, has been central to the anti-abortion movement and efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion in the United States.

But a lawsuit filed last week by a South Florida synagogue challenges new state legislation banning most abortions after 15 weeks, saying it violates the right to privacy and freedom of religion. the constitution of the state. According to Jewish law, “abortion is required if necessary to protect a woman’s health, mental or physical well-being.

The lawsuit, brought by Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor, a progressive Palm Beach County synagogue unaffiliated with a broader denomination, could face a difficult climb in court. But it is a reminder that abortion raises religious issues beyond those of the Christian right. And it suggests potential legal issues that could arise at a time when Roe looks likely to be overthrown, and the Supreme Court has been aggressively open to a broader role for religion in public and political life.

Florida’s law restricting abortions, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis in April, goes into effect July 1. By prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks, it makes no exception for cases of incest, rape or human trafficking. It does, however, allow abortions if the mother’s life is in danger or if two doctors determine that the fetus has a life-threatening abnormality. The law was disputed earlier this month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida on behalf of a group of abortion providers and abortion rights organizations.

Mr. DeSantis’ office said in a statement Wednesday that it was “confident that this law will ultimately withstand all legal challenges.”

Deep-rooted Jewish teachings indicate that abortion is permitted — and even required — if a mother’s life is in danger, Jewish leaders across the ideological spectrum have said. In Jewish thought, it’s also widely accepted that as long as a fetus is in the womb it has “potential,” but not a full personality, said Michal Raucher, assistant professor of Jewish studies at the University. Rutgers.

Rabbi Barry Silver of the Florida Synagogue is a self-proclaimed “rabbi-rouser,” leading a congregation that says it practices “modern, progressive Judaism” based on “reason and science.” Lawyer and former Democratic member of the Florida House of Representatives Rabbi Silver said Jewish law was “compatible with life beginning at birth.”

But for some Jews, this expansive interpretation has become harder to defend in the current political environment.

“It’s an uncomfortable position for many Jews to take publicly because there’s so much that the Christian right has baked into this understanding of fetal personality,” Prof Raucher said. “For decades, Jewish institutions kind of danced around this, saying it’s a potential personality, but we still value fetal life.”

Particularly in progressive Jewish communities, abortion is widely accepted beyond life and death situations. A Pew Research Survey 2014 found that of more than 800 Jews surveyed, 83% said abortion should be legal in most or all cases. In May, hundreds of Jews from various movements gathered outside the United States Capitol in favor of the right to abortion. The 2022 National Survey of Jewish Voters conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that 75% of Jews said they feared the Supreme Court would overturn Roe.

Among Orthodox Jews, the issue is more nuanced, said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. Abortion is necessary if a mother faces serious physical or psychological harm, he said, but is not allowed because of ‘mere hardship’ or a ‘belief in the right to choose’. .

“Jewish law believes that we have an incredible responsibility to life and even to potential life,” he said.

Andrew Shirvell, founder and executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, a Tallahassee-based anti-abortion group, said the lawsuit was just a “publicity stunt” based on “quite frivolous” arguments.

“It’s a Palm Beach County synagogue,” he said. “They certainly don’t speak on behalf of all Florida Jews, or even the Jewish religion.”

The legal basis for the lawsuit is shaky, Douglas Laycock, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia School of Law, wrote in an email. There’s probably only a small window of possible litigation, given that exceptions for surviving a mother are provided for in Florida law.

“Proclaiming that my religion allows abortion, or that this law addresses a point of religious disagreement, is not enough,” he wrote. “It’s not what your religion allows that is protected, but what you do primarily for religious reasons.”

But while the lawsuit may fail, its central argument may prove prescient, said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California’s Davis School of Law and an expert on abortion history, politics and law.

“If this trial is not the one, there will be a trial with a pregnant person saying the same thing,” she said.

There is also precedent for progressive efforts to expand abortion access on the basis of religious freedom, Professor Ziegler noted. Nearly 50 years ago, in discussions around the Hyde Amendment — first passed in 1976, banning the use of federal funds for most abortions — some on the religious left argued that the provision violated the separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion.

Today, as the Supreme Court adopts a broader interpretation of the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion, some progressives have begun to reconsider that argument.

“It’s kind of appealing to the Supreme Court on the idea that if religious freedom is really for everyone, then there should be winners and losers of all kinds, and the winners shouldn’t just have a particular subset of beliefs,” Professor Ziegler said.

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