Why Jews and Muslims Might Claim a Religious Liberty Exemption to the Alabama Abortion Bill

Abortion Alabama

Steven Waldman, author of a new book titled Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedommakes a fascinating argument in a recent op-ed at Newsweek.  What happens when a pro-life position on abortion clashes with religious liberty?  Jews believe life begins at birth, not conception.  Muslims believe that life begins around the fourth month of gestation.  Are these deeply-held religious beliefs?

On the Christian Right, where anti-abortion legislation and religious liberty drive the political agenda of its members, heads are exploding.  What happens when religious liberty clashes with anti-abortion laws?

Here is a taste of Waldman’s piece “Alabama Abortion Law: Should Jewish and Muslim Doctors and Women Get Exemptions For Religious Freedom?:

There may be a strange, implied loophole in the Alabama anti-abortion law—that abortions can be performed … if the doctor is Jewish or Muslim.

Here’s the logic.  We are in a moment of history when the courts are leaning in the direction of providing religious exemptions to secular laws. This was the thrust of the Sisters of the Poor case, when a group of nuns said they should be exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement for contraception coverage. They argued that the rule violated their religious beliefs so they shouldn’t have to participate. The “Bakers of Conscience” have made a similar argument—that they should be allowed to avoid making a cake for a same-sex wedding without being prosecuted under anti-discrimination laws—because their beliefs are grounded in religion.

The drafters of the law were at least partly motivated by their faith. “When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb, it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life,”  said Clyde Chambliss, a sponsor of the bill.

So the question becomes: does the law infringe on the religious beliefs of the woman or the doctor?

Though there are many interpretations in the Jewish tradition, the most common is that life begins at birth, not conception. Reform Rabbis have decreed that abortion is permitted if there is a  “strong preponderance of medical opinion that the child will be born imperfect physically, and even mentally.” If you’re a Jewish woman, you could argue that this law forces you to abide by a different definition of life (with roots in Roman Catholicism). 

If you’re a Jewish doctor who has sworn the Hippocratic oath—to perform medically appropriate procedures without discrimination—then it may be your religious belief that you have a duty to provide a Biblically-sanctioned abortion. By blocking you from offering that service, the law is forcing you to violate your Hippocratic oath and the guidance from your religion.

Read the rest here.

5 thoughts on “Why Jews and Muslims Might Claim a Religious Liberty Exemption to the Alabama Abortion Bill

  1. In America, religious liberty is based on the liberty or freedom of individual conscience. Narrowing the discussion to only religious freedom misses the point and establishes a biased preference. Law meant to coerce mandatory behavior that is based on only a narrow and conservative view of one particular religious tradition is discriminatory against those that choose a different direction based on their right of individual conscience.

    If I choose to follow Islam or Zoroastrianism or no God-based religion, as long as my actions hurt no one else or the community, then I should be free to follow my conscience. If a woman, facing a dreadful choice about abortion, for whatever reasons, exercises her right of individual conscience regarding medical decisions that have to do with her health and her individual body, then that woman should not have to obey the narrow dictates of hard-line, conservative religionists, regardless of the religion.

    The reason some people lean toward comparing ultra-conservative and zealous Christians to other religionist groups such as the Taliban is because both tend toward extreme, regressive and repressive policies and actions based on narrow religious exceptionalism.


  2. Well, maybe I am paying too much attention to what 99% of all discussions of “religious freedom” revolve around today, and perhaps what comes up in news stories is only a relatively small number of cases that get a disproportionate amount of media and social media attention. Maybe I am completely off-base and the increasingly conservative judiciary will regularly apply evaluations of religious freedom in a way that will not privilege conservative Christian views over others. If that is the case, I will be glad to have been proved unnecessarily pessimistic.

    But I do not believe my anecdotal experience is as atypical as you do, nor do I think my experience is even on the more extreme end of what many people encounter in their church culture based on what I have seen elsewhere and have had related to me by friends and acquaintances. So I have plenty of reason for pessimism in this regard.


  3. Dave H.,

    Most religious groups have their pet interests which often end up in the courts. Evangelicals and other Christians are not unique. Sometimes the individual groups prevail and sometimes they don’t.



  4. “The American political and religious right defines freedom ONLY as Christian religious freedom.”

    What’s the factual — or even conjectural — basis for this claim? I understand that some of the folks you’ve attended church with may feel this way, based on the (alarming) anecdotes you’ve provided in other comments here, but in my experience they are not representative. Far more importantly, they aren’t the deciders.

    Can you provide an example of a court holding that 1st Amendment religious liberty protections are extended only to Christians? Or that either the federal RFRA, or substantially similar Acts passed in numerous states, should be interpreted as applying only to Christians? I’d be very interested to read a decision which so held.

    Note: Kavanaugh — you know, the guy the wailing media said was going to usher in the Handmaid’s Tale — has already voted against the 4 other “conservative” justices in a death penalty case, and he (along with Roberts) refused to reconsider two lower court decisions which temporarily barred both Louisiana and Kansas from cutting Planned Parenthood’s Medicaid funding.

    I do agree with you that this will never happen, because I think that a Jewish or Muslim doctor raising religious liberty objections in order to perform an abortion is about as likely a scenario as Trump naming AOC Energy Czar. But the idea that the omnipresent “religious right” somehow can and will restrict religious freedom to those who buy limited edition King Trump gold coins is a highly dubious assertion.


  5. This will never happen. They could claim the exemption but it would never be upheld. The American political and religious right defines religious freedom ONLY as Christian religious freedom. And even here, this definition of religious freedom is confined to only a few key politically-driven conservative issues.


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