Judge Rules St. Louis Abortion Nondiscrimination Ordinance Interferes With Rights of Religious Employers

Photo Credit: Aneta Blaszczyk

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — A federal judge appointed to the bench by then-President Bill Clinton has ruled that the addition of abortion to a St. Louis nondiscrimination ordinance interferes with the rights of religious employers to operate in accordance with their faith.

“In the absence of a permanent injunction barring enforcement of the ordinance, the expressive association rights of Our Lady’s Inn and the Archdiocesan Elementary Schools would continue to be curtailed,” wrote Judge Aubrey Fleissig on Sunday. “As to the O’Brien plaintiffs, the absence of a permanent injunction would cause them harm because they must either comply with the ordinance in violation of their sincerely-held religious beliefs (and in violation of state law) or face a possible enforcement action by the City.”

As previously reported, Board Bill 203 was presented in early 2017 by Alderman Megan Green, who said that the protections were necessary to keep employers and landlords from acting adversely when a mother chooses to the end the life of her unborn child.

“Employers can have their own beliefs,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “but they shouldn’t be able to impose those beliefs on people or fire someone because of those beliefs.”

The bill made it illegal to “fail or refuse to hire, to discharge or otherwise to discriminate against any individuals with respect to compensation or the terms, conditions or privileges of employment, because of their reproductive health decisions or pregnancy status.”

In addition to prohibiting landlords from turning down an applicant for their “reproductive health decisions,” the ordinance also criminalized those who “print or circulate or cause to be printed or circulated, any statement, advertisement or publication, or to make any inquiry in connection with prospective employment” in expressing that the entity has hiring preferences and specifications regarding the matter.

Several Roman Catholic entities filed suit following the passage of the bill, namely elementary schools under the Archdiocese of St. Louis; Our Lady’s Inn, a Catholic non-profit that provides pro-life counseling and housing to pregnant women; and local manufacturing company O’Brien Industrial Holdings.

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They argued that as pro-life organizations, it is necessary to hire only those who share their values and mission—especially in the case of Our Lady’s Inn, whose daily work is to help expecting mothers to choose life.

“Ordinance 70459 prevents Plaintiffs—religious institutions, faith-based employers and pro-life organizations—from making employment and housing and real estate decisions consistent with their institutional missions and sincere moral and religious beliefs about human life,” the complaint likewise echoes.

“Ordinance 70459 denies religious and pro-life organizations the right to practice their faith, to freely associate around a common cause, to speak freely, and to be true to their missions,” it says.

On Sunday, Fleissig agreed that the ordinance poses an issue as applied to the religious groups, but could not find the statute facially unconstitutional.

“Our Lady’s Inn ability to organize its staff and circulate expressive materials with their views on controversial reproductive rights issues would be hindered if they were required to employ dissenters from their pro-life message,” she wrote.

“[I]t is undisputed that the Archdiocesan Elementary Schools impose upon their teachers a code of religious moral conduct and expect them to follow, in their personal life and behavior, the recognized moral precepts of the Catholic Church,” Fleissig noted.

“Under these circumstances, 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.”

She also found that O’Brien Industrial Holdings was entitled to protection under the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act, even though it is not a non-profit organization.

“[T]he ordinance fails to exempt employers like the O’Brien plaintiffs from providing health care benefits covering abortion, contraception, or sterilization, in direct violation of the Missouri RFRA,” Fleissig stated. “[T]he Court cannot accept the City’s conclusion that ‘religious’ qualifies only to ‘institutions.'”

Read the ruling in full here.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs cheered the news on Wednesday.

“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,” remarked Sarah Pitlyk, an attorney with the Thomas More Society.

“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,” she said. “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.”

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