A new, wide-ranging law in Missouri promises annual site inspections for abortion clinics, state-approved procedures in place for handling botched abortions, regulations effectively restricting the sale of the remains of aborted preborn babies, and new power for the state attorney general to prosecute those who break the law.
It was passed in a special session and quickly signed by the governor. It’s slated to take effect in October.
Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, called it “the strongest pro-life law passed in many decades.”
Joe Ortwerth, executive director of Missouri Family Policy Council (MFFC), one of our 40 state-based allies, called the special session “extraordinary,” and was particularly impressed with the new inspection requirements.
“The investigation must be unannounced,” he explained, “and include a thorough review of the abortion clinic’s health and safety practices.”
MFFC revealed in 2014 that while existing state regulations had mandated an annual inspection of abortion clinics, state health officials had failed to conduct health and safety inspections in eight of the previous 14 years, citing “staff limitations.”
From playgrounds to wedding cakes to something called the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” religious freedom has been winning lately in the courts.
Stuart Shepard asks Ashley Shaw, Family Policy Alliance’s new legal expert, to explain the nuances of these court actions and how they impact Christians across America.
U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs ruled Missouri’s laws establishing health and safety standards for abortion clinics are likely unconstitutional. Sachs cited last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which said states cannot place restrictions that create an “undue burden” for women.
Missouri’s attorney general has vowed to appeal the ruling.
Joe Ortwerth, executive director of the Missouri Family Policy Council, one of Family Policy Alliance’s 40 state-based allies, sponsored one of the laws as a legislator and said the ruling has emboldened Planned Parenthood.
“Judge Sachs has demonstrated through this ruling his callous and cavalier disregard for the health of women who find themselves at the mercy of slipshod abortionists,” he said. “The laws struck down by Judge Sachs have been on the books for three decades in our state, and are consistent with reputable medical standards for outpatient surgical facilities. Missouri currently has only one full-time abortion clinic that can meet those safety standards. Now, we will see four new abortion clinics open in our state where the operators will have no obligation to provide responsible care to women who will often be victimized by unsafe and unsterile procedures.”
The ruling seems out of step at a time when more and more pro-life bills are being passed at the state level. Eric Teetsel, executive director of Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, worries the ideology will spill over into his state.
“In the last several years, the Kansas Legislature has passed, and Gov. Sam Brownback has signed, at least 18 pro-life laws” he said. “Clearly, honoring the dignity of the unborn, safeguarding the health and safety of women, and preserving the rights of parents is of foremost importance to the citizens of our state. Yet, all too often, unelected judges have imposed their personal politics upon the voters. Such acts of raw judicial power are unjust and un-American.
“I stand with Gov. Greitens, Attorney General Hawley, and the people of Missouri as they push back against an example of such judicial activism in their state. May they prevail and provide a warning to judges elsewhere that the people will not stand by and watch as their will is ignored and undermined.”
Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center simply wanted to make its facility safer for the children who use it. That’s why the center applied for a state grant to get recycled tire products to resurface the playground.
But the state of Missouri rejected the Columbia school’s application, saying it would violate the separation of church and state.
Now the case has made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where arguments were heard Wednesday.
“The safety of children on Christian pre-school playgrounds is not less important than the safety of children on other playgrounds,” said Joel Oster, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom. “Providing grants for recycled tires to create a safe environment for children is not a government promotion of any religious doctrine. In fact, both the state Constitution and the U.S. Constitution prohibit this type of hostility to religion.”
Annette Kiehne is director of the Child Learning Center.
“We aren’t asking for special treatment,” she said on the steps of the Supreme Court after the hearing. “We are just asking to not be treated worse than everyone else. Whether you are a Jewish, Muslim, or Christian kid, or not religious at all, when you fall down on a playground, it hurts just as much at a religious preschool as it does at a non-religious one. We trust and pray that the Supreme Court will consider that carefully, and rule in favor of the safety of children everywhere.”
One of the key issues concerns the future of something called Blaine Amendments. These 19th century laws were designed to discriminate against Catholic schools and prevent money from going to them. Today that’s resulted in all Christian schools facing hurdles that other private schools do not.
“Family Policy Alliance believes that parents should be free to send their children to the school where they have the best chance of success,” said Policy Director Autumn Leva. “Blaine Amendments pose a serious barrier to that freedom. We will continue to work with our state-based allies to ensure that school funding is structured so that families are best able to send their children to the right school for them.”
If government offers a program to everyone, can it reject some people specifically because they happen to be Christian? That’s exactly what happened in Missouri, and the Supreme Court will decide the legal question this year. [Ed. note: The court has moved five cases, including this one, to the next term that starts in October.]
Both sides are currently filing briefs in the case. Attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) are representing Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia that operates a preschool and daycare. It applied to a state program that surfaces playgrounds using recycled tires. But once the state realized the money would go to Christians, it turned down the request.
ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley says the children on the playground should have the same opportunities as all the other kids in Missouri.
“Children’s safety is just as important on church daycare playgrounds as it is on other daycare playgrounds,” he explained. “Excluding Trinity Lutheran from this program exhibits an undeniable hostility to religion that violates the Constitution’s essential mandate of religious neutrality.”
The church lost at the appeals court level. A victory at the Supreme would establish a precedent for all Christian organizations that seek government assistance.