Montclair law firm challenging Florida abortion statute
When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law one of the country’s strictest abortion bans, the response was swift. Planned Parenthood, abortion rights groups, civil rights organizations and doctors across the state came together and filed a lawsuit to block the action.
The backlash was hardly a surprise — the law, widely seen as draconian, makes no exceptions for rape or incest, while setting a high bar for doctors concerned about the life of the mother.
What followed then, though, was unexpected — as seven Florida clergy members filed separate lawsuits employing a novel legal argument that was crafted by a Montclair-based law firm.
The clergy members — two Christians, three who are Jewish, a Buddhist and a Unitarian Universalist — argue that the law infringes on their right to practice their religious beliefs, restricting their ability to counsel pregnant women according to their faiths and exposing them to criminal repercussions.
The argument seeks to upend a narrative that often frames the opposition to abortion as the single religious view. Many Christian groups have used the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a law in 21 states, including Florida — to successfully contend that their religious liberties are threatened by abortion access and birth control. The suit brought by the Florida clergy reverses that equation.
“In this case, we’re using it the other way,” said David Harrison, whose firm, Spiro Harrison, is representing the Florida clergy members. “By imposing these state laws that are based on fundamental Christian beliefs, like life begins at conception, you’re imposing your religion on us and that infringes on our free practice of our religion. We should be able to exercise our religion according to our teachings and guidelines.”
The cases landed in Harrison’s practice through the firm’s satellite location in Miami, where another of the firm’s partners, Danielle Moriber, is spearheading the case. She is largely responsible, he said, for crafting a strategy that will likely be used as lawsuits emerge in other states with similarly restrictive abortion bans.
If nothing else, the Florida lawsuits, bringing together seemingly disparate clergy members, reflect the complexity and diversity of views and practices not just between one religion and another but within religions. Jewish interpretations, for instance, span ideologies and denominations, though Jewish law says that the life of the fetus begins at birth.
Under the Florida law, anyone who counsels or encourages a woman to get an abortion can be charged with “aiding and abetting.” And so, at stake, the suits contend, is one of a clergy member’s most sacred responsibilities — to provide guidance to congregants.
The ban, the suits read, “devalues the quality of life and the health of the woman or girl who is pregnant. It is in direct conflict with plaintiff’s clerical obligations and faith and imposes severe barriers and substantial burdens to their religious belief, speech and conduct.”
“What if a clergy member advises a woman to consider abortion because of her own health risks?” Harrison says. “We believe there is risk that under this law they will be subject to criminal prosecution, and that threatens their freedom of speech and religious liberty.”
Winning the case poses challenges, according to Ariel Alvarez, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University.
“If the statute is being challenged on the grounds that it violates the religious practices portion of the Free Exercise Clause, the court applies the rational basis test, which is a low bar,” Alvarez said. “The government only has to show that there was a rational basis for the statute.”
Harrison of the Montclair firm says that its novel approach to the case punctures stereotypes and the notion that people of the same faith think and practice their beliefs in lockstep, across a spectrum of issues.
“Not all Christians are opposed to a woman’s right to choose or, say, think that gay marriage is bad,” he said. “These are not Christian-wide beliefs.”
While the religious freedom of congregants is not the focus of the lawsuits, in limiting a clergy member’s ability to provide counsel the ban also affects the rights of women turning to their rabbi or minister for guidance, Harrison added.