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North Texas ministers say state abortion bans violate United Methodists’ religious freedom

Oak Lawn United Methodist Church.
Rene library
Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
Oak Lawn United Methodist Church.

Texas’ near-total ban on abortion and its so-called “bounty” law have had a chilling effect on the ability of Methodist ministers to counsel pregnant parishioners in line with their faith’s doctrine, according to a letter sent on behalf of four North Texas Un ite d M e thodist ministers.

The ministers argue that two Texas laws open them to potential criminal and civil liability if they offer advice and counsel that leads a parishioner to terminate her pregnancy in accordance with the United Methodist Church’s principles.

They say that violates a state law prohibiting any government agency from “substantially burdening” a person’s free exercise of religion.

“They're torn,” said Sean McCaffity, a lawyer for the ministers. “Do you give advice that may be actually consistent with your religious principles, but also subject your parishioner or member or the person seeking your guidance to potential criminal liability? And how do you square that with being a faithful leader?”

The United Methodist Church’s foundational statement of principles says there are times when the life of the mother and the life of a fetus are in conflict, and that creates circumstances where terminating a pregnancy is morally and religiously justified.

The ministers also argue that the religious rights of rank-and-file Methodists are being curtailed. The church teaches that decisions about terminating a pregnancy “must be prayerfully considered and resolved at the individual level,” the letter states. But the state’s abortion ban precludes that.

The ministers are Rev. Katie Newsome of Union Mission Congregation, which runs the philanthropic Union coffee shop; Rev. Phil Dieke of White Rock United Methodist Church; Rev. Rachel Baughman of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church; and Rev. Sheron Patterson of Hamilton Park United Methodist Church.

They sent the letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday.

In Paxton's court

In a legal opinion issued soon after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision, Paxton declared his commitment to making abortion illegal in the state.

“My office is specifically authorized to pursue and recover … civil penalties, and I will strictly enforce this law,” he wrote. “Further, we will assist any local prosecutor who pursues criminal charges.”

How exactly this will play out is unclear. KERA reached out to Paxton’s office but did not receive any comment.

“It remains to be seen how aggressive the attorney general will be,” in applying the law, said McCaffity. “And so that all has a chilling effect and a dampening effect, or, in the words of the [Texas] Religious Freedom Restoration Act, burdens the free exercise of a religion.”

That act requires plaintiffs to send a letter notifying the state about a violation of religious protections before they can sue the state.

Paxton, a Republican, has argued in favor of religious liberty in the past. But McCaffity said he doesn’t expect the attorney general to grant the exception his clients seek. They will decide whether to sue after reading Paxton’s response to the letter.

“We’re interested to see what the attorney general does and says,” he said.

Social principles

The United Methodist Church outlines its values in a document called the Social Principles. They affirm conditional support for abortion access, but generally guide the faithful to avoid abortion and support people seeking abortions in finding alternatives.

“Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child,” the church’s Social Principles states. “We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers.”

Most relevant to the legal challenge offered by the letter, the Social Principles states, “a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.”

The North Texas ministers argue in their letter that state abortion law now precludes them from freely offering that pastoral counsel their faith calls upon them to deliver.

Legal concerns

The ministers claim HB 1280, a law that made performing nearly all abortions a felony, “substantially burdens the free exercise of these religious beliefs by preventing access to such care, in most circumstances.”

The law was “triggered” by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning constitution protections for abortion access and went into effect on Aug . 25.

“These faith leaders cannot provide full pastoral care to their congregations as dictated by the United Methodist Church and the Social Principles because doing so now either violates H.B. 1280 or is consonant with violating the law,” the letter states.

The letter goes on to argue that the law violates the individual rights of the three women ministers who, as individual members of the United Methodist Church, cannot obtain a legal abortion in Texas, even though their faith tells them that “decisions related to life versus life conflicts must be prayerfully considered and resolved at the individual level.”

The letter also takes aim at Senate Bill 8, the so-called “bounty law” passed in 2021, which bans abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. The law also allows anyone – even people outside of Texas – to sue an individual who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance of an abortion,” and receive a minimum of $10,000 in damages.

“The ‘aiding and abetting’ language is broad enough to capture and include faithful pastoral care that may encourage or otherwise comfort decisions that lead to a person seeking and performing an abortion as described in the statute,” the letter states.

Religious arguments

The Methodist ministers aren’t the only church leaders challenging abortion restrictions on religious freedom grounds.

In Florida, a synagogue sued the state in June over a new law that mostly bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. They claimed the law stops pregnant Jewish people from freely practicing their faith.

“I think there is a coming challenge to the statutes from that perspective,” McCaffity said.

Elizabeth Sepper, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, said religious objections to abortion bans like these highlight the wide range of religious perspectives on abortion and the way that bans affect the free exercise of religion.

But Sepper, who focuses on religious liberty, health law and equality, thinks there are weaknesses in the ministers’ case.

The Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1999, allows for restricting religious practice, as long as the restriction is “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.” Paxton could argue that the state has a compelling interest in preserving fetal life.

The letter reflects the current lack of clarity around Texas’ abortion law, Sepper said. It hasn’t been settled fully whether someone can be prosecuted for assisting someone to access an abortion out of state. The ministers argue that they face a chilling effect from the possibility of criminal or civil penalty if, with their guidance, parishioners elect to leave the state to terminate a pregnancy.

“Usually criminal laws don't apply extraterritorially, but people may be right to be concerned about what the bounds will be in the future of these Texas abortion bans,” Sepper said.

She thinks the argument that all Methodists should be exempt from the Texas abortion laws is a significant weak point, because the three women making the case are not claiming that they are pregnant or seeking to have an abortion currently.

Sepper noted that in recent years, conservative groups have notched major victories in causes championed by the Religious Right using religious liberty claims.

“We’ve seen sort of a turbocharged religious liberty doctrine and one of the questions that these lawsuits present is, ‘ I s this is religious liberty only for conservatives? Is it only for those who oppose reproductive health care and LGBTQ rights?’” Sepper said. “We don't have yet an answer to that question, but I think we're going to start to see something from the courts in this regard.”

Got a tip? Email Christopher Connelly at cconnelly@kera.org or Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org.

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Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Christopher Connelly is a KERA reporter based in Fort Worth. Christopher joined KERA after a year and a half covering the Maryland legislature for WYPR, the NPR member station in Baltimore. Before that, he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow at NPR – one of three post-graduates who spend a year working as a reporter, show producer and digital producer at network HQ in Washington, D.C.
Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.