Texas clergy part of lawsuit struck down in latest blow to abortion law challenge

The Rev. Daniel Kanter, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said they will continue helping pregnant people get safe and legal abortions in other states.

In this Sept. 1, 2021, file photo, Barbie H. leads a protest against Texas' new abortion law at the Capitol in Austin, Texas. Dozens of people protested the law that went into effect Sept. 1. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File)

(RNS) — The Texas Supreme Court on Friday (March 11) effectively ended the primary legal challenge to the Texas law known as SB8, which limits abortion to the first six weeks of pregnancy by allowing private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion after that time.

The ruling by the state’s high court turned on whether the Texas Medical Board and other similar state licensing officials — the remaining defendants in the challenge — had an enforcement role under the law, and therefore, might be sued for defying U.S. Supreme Court precedents. Justice Jeffrey Boyd in the ruling wrote that those state officials have no enforcement authority, “either directly or indirectly,” and only private citizens could enforce the law.

This leaves abortion providers and advocates with no one left to sue as they seek to stop this law.

It’s the latest defeat for Texas abortion providers and their advocates, which have now lost at both the U.S. Supreme Court and the state’s highest court since the law took effect in September. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state judges and clerks or the state attorney general could also not be sued.

The Supreme Court of Texas building in Austin. Photo by WhisperToMe/Wikiepedia/Creative Commons

The Supreme Court of Texas building in Austin. Photo by WhisperToMe/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

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While federal courts have mostly blocked states from enforcing these kinds of abortion limitations, 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.

This legal challenge involves not only physicians and clinics, but also faith leaders and clergy who say the law impedes with their ministry as they counsel pregnant people making decisions about abortion. They’re being represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood.

This ruling, the ACLU said on Twitter, means that “SB8 will remain in place in Texas for the foreseeable future. This is a devastating blow for abortion rights in Texas and across the country.”

Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled in a separate case out of Mississippi that it would roll back abortion rights and possibly overturn its landmark Roe v. Wade decision in a ruling that is expected later this year.

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

The Rev. Daniel Kanter, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Dallas, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit who provides pastoral care and private counseling to women as they make decisions about abortions. Kanter also founded a multi-faith volunteer chaplaincy group that serves the Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center in Dallas.

Kanter said they will continue helping pregnant people get safe and legal abortions in other states. On Friday, Kanter said they had a group of about 20 patients who went to New Mexico to do so.

“These are people who want to have abortions. They want to have control over their bodies and their lives, and this is what we’re facilitating,” Kanter said.

Kanter said clergy across the state are becoming “conduits” for out-of-state safe and legal abortion. “People know they can confide in us. We will help them and we will go out of our way to make their lives better,” he said.

“I’m organizing chaplains to assist patients to be with them, to give them spiritual care, to accompany them in their journeys to these clinics,” Kanter added. “We’re sending large groups at a time. That’s going to continue as long as Roe v. Wade stays in place.”

The Rev. Daniel Kanter delivers a sermon on July 4, 2021. Video screengrab

The Rev. Daniel Kanter on July 4, 2021. Video screen grab

Meanwhile, other religious groups and faith leaders are celebrating the ruling.

Conservative Christian groups like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission lauded the decision, with the organization’s director of public policy, Chelsea Sobolik, expressing gratitude “for any law that protects vulnerable pre-born babies.”

“We must work toward a day when the laws of our land promote the dignity and worth of the preborn, and abortion is unthinkable and unnecessary,” Sobolik said.

Kimberlyn Schwartz, a spokeswoman for Christian group Texas Right to Life, said the decision “affirms a positive path forward for the historic law.”

“We’re grateful that the Texas Heartbeat Act will continue saving thousands of lives, and we’re hopeful that the judiciary will soon pave the way to protect all preborn children by overturning Roe v. Wade,” Schwartz said.

The Rev. Angela Williams, with the national coalition Spiritual Alliance of Communities for Reproductive Dignity, said she’s “disappointed that the courts continue to fail pregnant people in Texas.

“Our congregations will continue to offer compassionate care to patients, providers, and everyone in the community. We continue to build relationships with people of faith around the country who will provide care when states legislate against compassion,” Williams said.

The case now will return to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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