St. Louis violated the First Amendment rights of its residents when it tried to become America's first "sanctuary city" for abortion, according to a federal court.
Judge Audrey Fleissig ruled that the city could not compel religious organizations, pro-life nonprofits, and employers to hire abortion proponents, rent property to abortion clinics, or cover abortions in health plans—a requirement brought about when Democratic mayor Lyda Krewson attempted to add "reproductive health decisions" to the city's nondiscrimination policy in 2017. Fleissig, who was appointed by President Obama at Democratic senator Claire McCaskill's recommendation, said that ordinance violated Missouri's Religious Freedom Restoration Act and federal law. The decision stopped short of calling the rule unconstitutional but renders enforcement nearly impossible.
"The City has failed to meet its burden to prove that the Ordinance is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is not unduly restrictive," the ruling says.
Our Lady's Inn, a pro-life pregnancy center that supports low-income pregnant women, and the city's Catholic schools filed the suit claiming the city policy would force it to violate its freedom of conscience. A Catholic businessman also joined the suit, arguing that the policy would force him to pay for abortion and contraceptives against his beliefs. Judge Fleissig ruled that the ordinance impeded the freedom of expression and association for the charity and religious schools.
"The forced inclusion of individuals who do not share Our Lady's Inn's commitment against abortion would significantly affect the ability of Our Lady's Inn to advocate for its services and encourage women to forgo abortion," the ruling says. "The forced inclusion of teachers or other staff who do not adhere to those values would significantly affect the Archdiocesan Elementary Schools' ability to advocate their viewpoints, through its teachers and staff, to their students."
Fleissig said the ordinance did not violate the First Amendment rights of private businesses whose owners oppose abortion. She did, however, rule that the ordinance was "invalid" because it "fails to exempt employers … from providing health care benefits covering abortion, contraception, or sterilization, in direct violation of the Missouri RFRA."
The plaintiffs' attorneys at the Thomas More Society said the decision will prevent the city from suppressing pro-life messages and protect conscience rights. The group called the law "a sham" in a release and praised the Court's acknowledgment that there "is no evidence whatsoever of the kind of discrimination that this ordinance purports to address."
"This law that claims to protect abortion supporters from discrimination is actually an attempt to suppress the viewpoint of those who believe that abortion is harmful or wrong by making it impossible for them to operate in accordance with their beliefs within the City of St. Louis," Thomas More Society special counsel Sarah Pitlyk said in a statement. "It's unfortunate that it took a lawsuit to vindicate the fundamental rights of St. Louis citizens, but the St. Louis Board of Aldermen has now been made aware that it is unconstitutional to require pro-life organizations to hire or rent property to abortion proponents, and that it is illegal to require pro-life employers to include abortion coverage in their employee health plans."
The city had defended the policy as furthering a "compelling governing interest" in line with the Supreme Court's interpretation about the balance of regulation and religious beliefs. The mayor's office did not respond to requests for comment about the ruling or whether it intends to appeal.
St. Louis's ordinance was the latest attempt by abortion supporters to use the government to target pro-life organizations. In June, the Supreme Court struck down a California law that forced pro-life pregnancy centers to post information directing clients to abortions. Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, said the St. Louis decision was another major win for religious groups and the freedom of speech.
"The courts have once again recognized these attempts to force pro-lifers to act against their consciences for what they are—an unlawful power grab by authoritarian leftists," he said. "This law blatantly violated the First Amendment, and the court made the correct decision in siding with liberty instead of tyranny."