By Jennifer Brinker
St. Louis archdiocesan elementary schools, a Catholic-run shelter for homeless pregnant women, and a for-profit holding company and its owner have sued the city of St. Louis over a new ordinance they say violates their religious freedom because it grants “protected status” to abortion advocates.
The Thomas More Society, a national not-for-profit law firm, filed the lawsuit on the plaintiffs’ behalf May 22 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
Enacted in February, the city ordinance provides a protected-class status to any woman who chooses to have an abortion and those who support her in that action — while also discriminating against those who promote pro-life alternatives, the lawsuit stated.
The language also creates protections for anyone who has “made a decision related to abortion,” even when the abortion is not their own.
The ordinance also forces private businesses to include abortion coverage in their employee health plans even if company owners have sincere objections to abortion.
At a May 22 news conference on the courthouse steps, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis said the archdiocese “will not comply” with the ordinance.
“As Catholics, we know that all life is a gift from God and our parents, and must be protected at any cost,” he said. “Sadly, legal protection for those members of the human family waiting to be born in this country was removed by the Supreme Court in 1973.”
“Now, some of our St. Louis politicians have made a protected ‘class’ out of ‘reproductive health,’ which is merely a politically correct euphemism for abortion,” he added.
Archbishop Carlson also noted that a critical point in the ordinance’s passage has been overlooked: “the lives of babies in their mother’s wombs that are in peril. The passage of this bill is not a milestone of our city’s success. It is, rather, a marker of our city’s embrace of the culture of death.”
Calling the ordinance “unsound,” Thomas More Society special counsel Sarah Pitlyk said that “it creates a protected class defined not by any immutable characteristics such as race or gender, but by special opinion. It violates fundamental constitutional freedoms and multiple state laws. We are asking the federal court to declare the ordinance invalid and to free all St. Louis citizens from the threat of criminal punishment for doing nothing more than exercising their constitutional rights.”
The suit claims that the ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution and several state laws, including the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and others that prohibit employer-mandated coverage for abortion, and provide for maternity homes, adoption and pregnancy assistance for low-income women.
The ordinance also contradicts a 2014 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of Hobby Lobby, which stated that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for contraception in health care plans under the Affordable Care Act violated the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Proponents of the ordinance have been unable to point to any examples of discrimination in employment, housing and reality against individuals who have had or were planning to have an abortion.
Pitlyk described the ordinance as a “remedy in search of a problem.”
“This ordinance does not exempt individuals with sincere religious, moral or ethical objections to abortion from its requirements in any way,” Pitlyk said, “and even for qualifying religious organizations, the exemption for employment, housing and realty is extremely limited.
“The city of St. Louis, by pushing an abortion agenda, is clearly out of step with the rest of the state,” Pitlyk said.
Our Lady’s Inn, one of the suit’s plaintiffs, has noted that the ordinance will destroy its ability to provide sanctuary to homeless pregnant women and their children.
The agency, which was founded 35 years ago, has provided more than 6,000 women with shelter and support, such as securing education, stable housing and employment.
The other two plaintiffs are Frank O’Brien and his company, O’Brien Industrial Holdings. Several years ago he and his company were part of a case that became a U.S. Supreme Court case in which Hobby Lobby challenged the Affordable Care Act and its mandate to require contraceptive coverage in most health care plans.
Hobby Lobby’s owners cover contraceptives in their employee health plan but they objected on moral grounds to the government mandating they also cover abortifacients for employees.
Brinker is a reporter at the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.