Religious Liberty for All? A Religious Right to Abortion
38 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2023 Last revised: 24 May 2023
Date Written: March 2, 2023
One of the most notable recent trends in Supreme Court jurisprudence is the expansion of religious liberty rights. The right to practice one’s faith is a critical element of a democracy, but the Supreme Court has privileged that right over other equally critical ones, most notably the right to equal treatment. Thus, for example, it has held that for-profit companies have a religious right to exclude contraception from their health insurance plans and that nonprofit charities have a religious right to refuse to place foster children with same-sex couples. In these and similar cases, the religious beliefs aligned with conservative Christianity.
But what if the religious liberty claim were not brought by a conservative Christian but by a progressive Christian, or not a Christian at all, and the religious belief collided with traditional Christian ideology? More precisely, what might be the result of a religious liberty challenge to an abortion ban? This question is not farfetched, as Jewish and other faith groups in multiple states are challenging restrictive abortion laws based upon religious freedom. Plaintiffs argue that their state’s abortion ban impedes their ability to live out the commandments of their faith. Would the Supreme Court retrench its religious liberty doctrine in the face of these lawsuits? Or would expansive religious liberty exemptions be available for progressive views as well as conservative ones? Or neither? This Essay examines that question, and well as the implications of a denial of the progressive religious liberty claim.
Part I outlines the ballooning of religious liberty rights, and how they have usually helped conservative white Christians at the expense of less powerful groups. Part II takes the current expansive doctrine and applies it to a claim for a religious right to abortion, arguing it should succeed given recent decisions. Part III suggests that despite the current doctrine, the Court will likely reject the claim, and discusses what this failure indicates about the future of the Supreme Court.
Keywords: abortion, reproductive rights, women, supreme court, religion, religious liberty, free exercise, RFRA, conservative, progressive
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation