Seven faith leaders from South Florida and Tampa are suing elected attorneys across the state — from Attorney General Ashley Moody to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle of Miami-Dade County — over Florida’s new ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Clergy from diverse religious practices, including Reform Judaism, Buddhism, Episcopalianism, Unitarianism and the United Church of Christ, filed five lawsuits Monday with the 11th Judicial Circuit. All contend the ban (HB 5) violates constitutionally established rights to free speech, religious exercise and the separation of church and state.
The complaints also reference the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998, which among other things protects against laws that “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”
“Since time immemorial, the question of when a potential fetus or fetus becomes a life and how to value maternal life during a pregnancy have been answered according to religious beliefs and creeds,” the lawsuits say. “HB 5 codifies one of the possible religious viewpoints on the question, and in its operation imposes severe burdens on other (beliefs, including those of the plaintiffs).”
The plaintiffs are demanding an immediate stay in the state’s enforcement of the law and for the law to be ruled unconstitutional.
“For decades, the Catholic bishops and the Evangelical right wing have claimed a singular religious high ground on the issue of abortion rights and tried to label anyone opposed to their views as ‘secularists.’ Yet there are millions of Americans whose deeply held religious beliefs, speech, and conduct are being substantially burdened by restrictive abortion bans like HB 5,” said University of Pennsylvania political science professor Marci Hamilton. Hamilton is representing the plaintiffs alongside a handful of lawyers from New Jersey-based firm Spiro Harrison and Chicago-based Jayaram Law.
“Freedom of religion must protect the religious rights and beliefs of all citizens — not just those opposed to women’s right to choose.”
The plaintiffs are Rabbi Robyn Fisher of Beth Or Miami, Rabbi Gayle Pomerantz of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, Rabbi Jason Rosenberg of Congregation Beth Am in Tampa, Lama Karma Chotso of Open Awareness Buddhist Center in Miami, Rev. Tom Capo of Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami, Rev. Lauri Hafner of Coral Gables United Church of Christ, and an unnamed priest of the Episcopal Church of Miami-Dade.
The lawsuit follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn precedents set through Roe v. Wade and defer to states the power to restrict or fully ban abortion.
Florida’s new law, which includes no exception for victims of rape, incest or human trafficking, was among the strictest abortion prohibitions in the nation when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure in April. Soon after a draft of the pending Supreme Court decision leaked, GOP lawmakers throughout the state signaled interest in passing a complete ban next year.
“We now have the will and we have the votes in the House to pass legislation that will ban abortion in the great state of Florida for life,” Deltona Rep. Webster Barnaby, who filed a Texas-style “heartbeat” ban last Session that would have outlawed abortions after around six weeks, said in May.
The bill died without a single committee hearing.
Upon hearing of the lawsuits, Moody issued the following statement: “To be abundantly clear, terminating a pregnancy at 15 weeks requires ripping apart, limb-by-limb, a baby, which medical evidence has shown likely feels pain. It is certainly newsworthy that these religious organizations are bringing suit to challenge Florida’s ban of that practice. Nonetheless, we will continue to defend the state statute as that is the responsibility of the Florida Attorney General’s Office.”
The new lawsuit joins others challenging HB 5 now in the legal pipeline by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor.
Late last month, Democratic lawyer and Attorney General candidate Daniel Uhlfelder came on as co-counsel to the Boynton Beach-based Synagogue’s suit, which cites protections for abortion under Jewish law if it is “necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman.”
The new abortion law, which went into effect July 1, allows for abortions after 15 weeks if the mother’s life is at risk or if two doctors concur there is a fetal abnormality.
Defendants in the five new lawsuits include Moody, Rundle and State Attorneys Philip Archer, David Aronberg, Thomas Bakkedahl, Bruce Bartlett, Larry Basford, Ginger Bowden Madden, Ed Brodsky, Jack Campbell, John Durrett, Amira Fox, William Gladson, Brian Haas, Brian Kramer, R.J. Larizza, Melissa Nelson, Harold Pryor, Dennis Ward, Andrew Warren and Monique Worrell.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a statement from the Attorney General’s Office.