The Archdiocese of St. Louis and the city are in a legal showdown over new provisions in St. Louis' anti-discrimination law regarding women's reproductive decisions. The archdiocese's schools and a private company, O'Brien Industrial Holdings, on Monday in federal court filed a lawsuit challenging a St. Louis ordinance that they say adds abortion rights supporters to a protected class, while discriminating those who are against abortions.
The lawsuit said the ordinance, which was enacted this year by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, forces private employers to include abortion coverage in employee health plans, even if the company owners object on religious grounds. The suit seeks to have the ordinance, which opponents say is a violation of the U.S. and state constitutions, initially blocked and eventually overturned.
"The passage of this bill is not a milestone of our city's success. It is rather a marker of our city's embrace of the culture of death," St. Louis Archbishop Robert J. Carlson said Monday at a news conference shortly after the lawsuit was filed.
But those who back the ordinance say it's designed to stop landlords and employers from discriminating against women who are pregnant, use birth control or have had an abortion.
“What this bill was really about, was that when somebody — whether it’s an employer, a real estate agent or a landlord — uses their position, and often a position of power, in order to punish women for making those medical decisions, then we need to hold them accountable,” said 15th Ward Alderwoman Megan Elliya Green, who sponsored the ordinance.
Opponents of the measure argued in hearings that the rule could forbid Sunday schools and crisis pregnancy centers from firing employees who openly discussed their decisions. They also were concerned about a section of the law that forbids housing discrimination, arguing a hypothetical scenario in which a Catholic organization renting space would not be able to deny a lease to an abortion clinic.
The final version of the ordinance included language exempting religious groups from some of these scenarios. State representatives attempted to pre-empt the new rule with a bill in the 2017 session that would have barred cities and counties from enforcing so-called sanctuary laws, but it was unsuccessful.
The nonprofit Our Lady’s Inn is one of the plaintiffs. President and Executive Director Peggy Forest said the ordinance "destroys our ability to provide sanctuary to homeless pregnant women and their children in need," as well as from "employing only individuals who support our alternatives-to-abortion mission."
She also argued it places her organization in an unfair position. “The effect this ordinance has on my agency is akin to posting a no coffee allowed sign at a Starbucks or no children allowed billboards at an elementary school.”
Abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri issued a statement early Monday evening, saying: "No woman should fear losing her job because of the personal medical decisions she makes."
Durrie Bouscaren contributed to this report.
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