Why Are These Religious Leaders Challenging a Florida Abortion Law?

·Contributing Writer
Clergy are worried that they may face penalties. (Photo: Getty Images)
Clergy are worried that they may face penalties. (Photo: Getty Images)

On Dec. 12, 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a suit challenging a component of a Florida law set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2017, that would require any person or organization that advises a person seeking an abortion to provide state-mandated information about abortions, to have all persons providing such counsel to register with the state and face criminal penalties for failing to do so, and to inform the parents of any minor seeking their counsel (which would break with current Florida legal precedent).

Six of the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit are clergy members — three rabbis and three ministers — who claim that the law, passed as part of the H.B. 1411 anti-abortion legislative package signed by Gov. Rick Scott in May, violates their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, as well as their First Amendment claims to free speech.

Nancy Abudu, the director of legal operations at the ACLU of Florida, tells Yahoo Beauty that this law being challenged within H.B. 1411 isn’t so unlike many of its counterparts in other states; for example, Ohio Governor John Kasich just signed a 20-week abortion ban in his state last week.

Nancy Abudu, the director of legal operations at the ACLU of Florida, tells Yahoo Beauty that the clergy plaintiffs in their suit are all individuals who, as part of their responsibility to their congregants, might enter into situations in which they provide counseling to someone who might, for any reason, be thinking about terminating a pregnancy. Given the way the law is written, she explains, a strict reading of the statute could be interpreted to mean that the counseling services clergy regularly provide would be directly impacted by the law — making all religious leaders who provide counsel potentially liable for criminal charges.

She adds, however, that the claims brought forward in the Florida suit are somewhat unique in that they represent a First Amendment challenge to such abortion restrictions.

“This is an effort to target and prohibit the way abortion is accessed — by making this not about the women seeking abortion, but those from whom they seek counsel,” says Abudu. “This is about putting pressure on those who provide information to women, that in turn results in a real impact on the way women can then exercise their rights.”

“Often women who are part of a religion who are faced with these kinds of decisions look to their faith leaders for guidance,” Abudu says. “And now those leaders are facing threats for helping their own members.”

Abudu explains that the component of H.B. 1411 being challenged in the suit only targets those who provide information about termination of a pregnancy. It is not geared toward those who dissuade the people they counsel from termination or fail to counsel them about termination as an option, as is the case with the crisis pregnancy centers that exist throughout the state.

The new law would run counter to existing Florida law, which stipulates clearly that if a teen is pregnant and is able to establish for the court that it would be harmful for her to inform her parents of her pregnancy, she can gain a judicial bypass absolving her of the mandatory notification of her parents or guardians before she can terminate a pregnancy. H.B. 1411, however, runs in direct opposition to the law already on the books, requiring without exception that anyone who provides a minor counsel about termination also inform the minor’s parents.

Rabbi Gayle Pomerantz has been a rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach since 1994; her colleague, Rabbi Gary A. Glickstein, is one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit.

“There is precedent in Jewish law that the mother’s life takes precedence over the fetus,” Pomerantz tells Yahoo Beauty. “We feel that we are able to counsel people in situations where the mother’s life is endangered, whether that be to her mental or physical health. She has the foundation of her faith behind her in making that difficult choice.”

As such, Pomerantz adds that H.B. 1411’s requirement for those who provide counseling about termination of a pregnancy “infringes on the sacred relationship between clergy and congregant, and could restructure the way we could counsel somebody.” She explains that this would particularly influence the requirement that they notify a parent whose minor child is seeking them out for counsel, “even in cases where we knew that a parent might be abusing a child or might potentially harm a child if they had this knowledge.”

Pomerantz says that she is concerned that the component of H.B. 1411 being challenged in the ACLU suit, “puts the synagogue or church in a very compromising situation. If we have to advertise that we are counselors on this kind of issue, it puts us at risk for further hate crimes that it feels like the whole country is feeling more vulnerable to right now. And for us to be providers of medical information that we have little to no knowledge of — it really compromises our ability to act as the kinds of advisers and spiritual counselors we are meant to be. Someone is not coming to their rabbi or priest for medical information. They are coming to us because they are seeking counsel for a spiritual issue they have to face. It’s unreasonable that a clergy person would advise someone about a medical procedure versus a spiritual decision. … We really view the sacred space in which we meet people as just that — sacred and intimate. There is not a place for us to be pressured into disseminating information that is not a part of what we have been trained to do.” Pomerantz added that this “would corrupt the relationship between a congregant and their rabbi, diluting the sense of confidentiality and trust that exist between a rabbi and their congregants.”

Says Pomerantz, “As a person of faith, I really see this very difficult decision [about terminating a pregnancy] as a decision between a person, possibly her partner, and with God — the state doesn’t have a place in making this decision. I feel that women’s rights are being chipped away at. It is very frightening. It’s often the more right-wing, faith-based faith leaders whose voices are heard. I think it’s really important that progressive voices are also heard, and that we don’t allow the far-right leaders to co-opt the conversation. We also have a voice — and we will also make it heard.”

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