St. Louis Law Enshrining 'Abortion Sanctuary City' Partly Struck Down


Protesters try to engage passersby outside St. Louis' sole abortion clinic in teh Central West End. - COURTESY OF PLANNED PARENTHOOD
  • Protesters try to engage passersby outside St. Louis' sole abortion clinic in teh Central West End.

U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Fleissig has struck down a few key components of a St. Louis ordinance intended to prohibit discrimination based on reproductive health decisions or pregnancy.

Fleissig's decision, which was issued over the weekend but went largely unnoticed til yesterday, says that the ordinance violates a state law enshrining religious freedom, as well as the First Amendment. The judge then issued an injunction ordering the city not to enforce its strictures against the trio that had challenged the law.

However, Fleissig declined to find the ordinance flat-out unconstitutional. It survives, but enforcing it against anyone who dissents with its premise may be nearly impossible.

The ordinance, which prohibits discrimination in employment or housing, had been challenged by three groups opposed to abortion: Our Lady's Inn, a nonprofit providing housing for pregnant, low-income women seeking alternatives to abortion; the Archdiocesan Elementary Schools of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which requires employees to sign a statement saying they will conduct their lives "in a manner consistent with the Catholic church's teaching, including opposition to abortion;" and O'Brien Industrial Holdings LLC, a closely held industrial company whose owner opposes abortion and does not want to provide health insurance to employees that covers abortion, sterilization or contraceptives.

O'Brien had argued that the ordinance would require him to offer such coverage, and though the city claimed in its court filings that wasn't the case, Judge Fleissig ruled that her reading indicated it was. That, she said, was a violation of Missouri's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The other two parties had argued that the city's ordinance would require them to hire people who disagree with them on abortion — and that such a ruling amounted to a violation of their First Amendment rights. Fleissig agreed.

All three were represented by the Thomas More Society. (The organization has posted Fleissig's ruling online here.)

Sarah Pitlyk, special counsel for the society, said in a statement she was satisfied with the ruling. “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,” Pitlyk wrote. “We are especially pleased with the Court’s acknowledgement that there is no evidence whatsoever of the kind of discrimination that this ordinance purports to address, because it exposes the law for the sham that it is.

"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.”

Fleissig did not, however, strike down the ordinance in its entirety, as the Thomas More Society had asked. She suggested that the ordinance would still be valid for organizations that "hold no contrary expressive or religious beliefs." A corporation without a deeply held position on abortion, for example, may well fall under its strictures.

Alderwoman Megan Ellyia Green, who served as the bill's sponsor, said in a statement yesterday that she was disappointed by the ruling.

"From the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh to restrictive laws passed at the state level, to this ruling, it is clear that reproductive health rights are under attack at every level of our government and every branch of our government," she said. "Anti-choice extremists are intent on imposing their private religious beliefs on others in pursuit of their anti-woman agenda.

"These interests seek to ensure that private reproductive health choices are not kept private between patients and doctors, but rather are used as a means to discriminate against women in housing and employment. "We are currently analyzing the repercussions of the ruling and evaluating what we can do locally to ensure that St. Louis City is a safe and welcoming place for all people regardless of their private reproductive health choices."

Koran Addo, a spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson, didn't respond to a message seeking comment late yesterday. We'll update this post if we hear back.

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