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Clergy sue to halt Florida abortion law, citing religious freedom

The Rev. Laurinda Hafner, who supports abortion rights, inside the chapel of her church on July 29 in Coral Gables, Fla. (Taimy Alvarez for The Washington Post)

Saying Florida’s strict new abortion ban is causing “immediate and irreparable injury to … fundamental rights and cherished liberties,” seven members of a clergy asked a state court for a temporary injunction Thursday so that they can again advise believers freely based on their own religious values and beliefs.

The request to the Circuit Court of the 11th Judicial Circuit of Miami comes a month after the same clerics sued Florida, saying the law that went into effect July 1 violates their freedom of speech, religious liberty and the Constitution’s establishment clause, “because it codifies a singular and exclusive religious belief with no plausible secular justification,” the lawsuit charged.

The Florida law, which makes no exceptions for rape or incest, was signed in April by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in a Pentecostal church alongside antiabortion lawmakers such as the House speaker, who called life “a gift from God.”

The plaintiffs are two Christians, three Jews, one Unitarian Universalist and a Buddhist.

Clerics sue over Florida abortion law, saying it violates religious freedom

They note in the suit and Thursday’s filings that it’s a felony to violate the abortion ban, including “participating” in one, which the clerics say under Florida law appears to qualify as “counseling or encouraging” a crime.

“Plaintiff is inhibited from providing spiritual guidance in accordance with their religious beliefs to their congregants,” the filings read.

Opponents of the Florida law, one of the strictest antiabortion measures in the country, are arguing on multiple fronts. It bans abortions after 15 weeks.

Even before the law took effect, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, Florida abortion providers and the Center for Reproductive Rights sued, citing a 1980 state constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to privacy. The state Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that the right to abortion is included in that, including for minors. And in 2012, Florida voters rejected an amendment to the state constitution that would have removed the abortion-related privacy protection.

Planned Parenthood won an initial injunction, pausing the law from going into effect, but a state appeal quickly put the law back on until the plaintiffs could argue their points.

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Last Wednesday, a Florida appellate court formally rejected the injunction request, saying the abortion providers and their co-plaintiffs couldn’t prove “irreparable harm.” The state law bans abortions after 15 weeks. The vast majority of abortions — around 9 in 10 — occur during the first trimester, which is around 12 to 14 weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The parties do not dispute that the operation of the law will not affect the majority of provided abortions,” Judge Brad Thomas said of the Planned Parenthood case, CBS reported.

With the legal theory of Planned Parenthood and its co-plaintiffs rejected, the clerics’ attorney, Marci Hamilton, said her clients needed to urgently press their case.

The clerics cite their faith scriptures and denominational policies, showing diverse beliefs about what it means to honor the inherent rights of humans — including those bearing children — and when life begins.

“Plaintiff has given sermons on reproductive justice and believes his role in counseling and advising women and girls faced with these issues is to be a pillar of discernment and support as she makes her own decision,” read the motion from the Rev. Tom Capo, a minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami.