In Texas, ‘Reproductive Freedom Congregations’ catch on as new abortion law looms

In a gathering at First Unitarian Church of Dallas, faith leaders with Just Texas announced Wednesday (Aug. 25) that 25 churches had achieved the Reproductive Freedom Congregations designation since first launching the effort in 2016. Another 70 are in process.

Clergy members hold hands during the blessing of a Whole Woman's Health clinic in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of Just Texas

(RNS) — In a state where a new law could soon allow any person to sue those who help a woman get an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, more than two dozen Texas congregations are publicly declaring their support for women to decide whether and when to have children and asserting that access to reproductive health care is a human right.

These churches are designated as Reproductive Freedom Congregations, and in order to claim this label, faith leaders go through a monthslong process to not only learn about reproductive health care, but also how to advocate for better access to services that include contraception, abortion, prenatal and pregnancy care and comprehensive sex education.

Spearheaded by a movement of faith leaders known as Just Texas: Faith Voices for Reproductive Justice, pastors are trained on how to talk about reproductive health from the pulpit.

Just Texas, an initiative of the Texas Freedom Network, also offers training for clergy and congregants interested in testifying on reproductive health care and to prepare them if they’d like to march and protest for reproductive freedom issues. Faith leaders interested in the RFC designation can sign up through the Just Texas website and attend a number of the information sessions so far scheduled through September.

At a Wednesday (Aug. 25) news conference at First Unitarian Church of Dallas, Just Texas announced that 25 churches had achieved the Reproductive Freedom Congregations designation since the effort launched in 2016. About 70 other churches are currently undergoing this process. 

RELATED: Clergy among advocates suing Texas over new law deputizing citizens to enforce abortion ban

“This is a historic moment,” said the Rev. Erika Forbes, outreach and faith manager of Just Texas, at the news conference. Forbes said Texas is the first in the country to have such a designation for churches, adding that “given the state of politics and policy and culture in the state of Texas, it’s a moment worth noting because it represents a transformation.”

To earn this designation, congregations have also voted to affirm a set of principles agreeing they will “trust and respect women” and that access to reproductive health services is a “moral and social good.” The RFC designation is similarly modeled after churches that show support for LGBTQ people by declaring as open and affirming congregations. It’s a way to help people who wish to find and attend progressive churches that “show they support women,” Forbes told Religion News Service. 

The Rev. Erika Forbes speaks about churches achieving the Reproductive Freedom Congregations designation, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at First Unitarian Church of Dallas. Video screengrab

The Rev. Erika Forbes speaks about churches achieving the Reproductive Freedom Congregations designation, Aug. 25, 2021, at First Unitarian Church of Dallas. Video screen grab

“Even though we know that statistically speaking, church membership is down, data show that people go to their church or look to the church of their childhood upbringing to help them frame their moral decisions,” Forbes said. “Churches are responsible for the direction of the culture in their community, in their state and in this country.”

New data show that, contrary to common assumptions, large numbers of white evangelicals don’t appear to place a high political priority on abortion and don’t think it’s likely it will ever be outlawed in the United States. However, abortion resistance is still often driven by religious advocacy, and members of Just Texas seek to challenge what they see as a “dominant religious narrative” that can often pit people of faith against the LGBTQ community and reproductive health.

This effort, Forbes said, is crucial as the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life recently launched a website where anyone can anonymously submit tips on people who might have helped others get abortions in the state, according to Vice News.

“We need, right now more than ever, churches to come out of the shadows,” Forbes said.

The effort behind Reproductive Freedom Congregations is underway during what advocates call a critical cultural moment as a new law — set to take effect Sept. 1 — puts Texas in line with a number of states that ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks after conception.

While federal courts have mostly blocked states from enforcing these kinds of measures, Texas’ law differs from similar nationwide efforts because it deputizes private citizens to enforce it, allowing them to sue anyone, from the physicians who perform the abortion to clergy who counsel or assist an abortion patient, advocates say.

So far the 25 churches that have taken this official stance are largely Unitarian Universalist but also include Presbyterian congregations and the University Baptist Church in Austin. With this declaration, congregations could offer different levels of engagement, from committing to ongoing education around reproductive freedom to publicly advocating about such issues in protests and across social media.

To the Rev. Amelia Fulbright, who pastors the Congregational Church of Austin, it’s crucial that people of faith reclaim the public discourse around reproductive health from what she sees as “the grip of patriarchal religion and politics.”

A sign outside a church with the Reproductive Freedom Congregations designation. Photo courtesy of Just Texas

A sign outside a church with the Reproductive Freedom Congregations designation. Photo courtesy of Just Texas

In a “healthy congregation,” Fulbright said, churchgoers can gather with respect and empathy for one another, and rather than abortion playing out as a political issue, “it’s about the story of someone who sits in the pews with you every week.”

“At our best, congregations are a much better place than the public square for conversations about the personal, nuanced, life and death issues that come up for people in their reproductive lives,” said Fulbright, who as a representative of Just Texas helped start the RFC designation at University Baptist Church.

Fulbright said this designation not only equips faith leaders to better accompany people through an abortion, miscarriage, pregnancy or decision not to bear children, but also helps empower people to understand “the presence of God is with them as they make these life and death decisions.”

For the Rev. Daniel Kanter of First Unitarian Church of Dallas, this designation means his church will continue to teach youths comprehensive sexual education as it has for decades. It will also seek to expand curriculum to people outside the congregation to help address what he described as the other pandemic: teen pregnancy.

This curriculum, Kanter told RNS, teaches about “agency over our bodies, about lifting up any form of sexuality and expression.”

“It’s about making the right choices. It’s about knowledge being the basis of your sexual life so that the more you know, the better decisions you make,” he said.

First Unitarian Church of Dallas has a long history of advancing reproductive priorities. The church’s Women’s Alliance was an early supporter of Roe v. Wade as it went through the Texas court system. Cecile Richards, who was president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was raised in the church, Kanter said.

Faith communities shouldn’t fear dialogue, Kanter said.

“My hope is that this designation is an invitation to a deeper conversation within the congregation whatever they decide. … Open up storytelling and open up conversation about these issues that are very human, that we are all dealing with,” Kanter said. “Part of being a person of faith is trusting that God made us in human form to procreate and to love in many different ways. That everything we have is holy.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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