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Federal judge bars enforcement of St. Louis' abortion discrimination ordinance against 3 organizations


ST. LOUIS • The St. Louis Archdiocese, a religious organization and a local business won a legal victory against St. Louis when a federal judge declared that the city’s ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on reproductive decisions was unlawful as applied to them.

The St. Louis Archdiocesan Elementary Schools, O’Brien Industrial Holdings Inc. and Our Lady’s Inn, which provides housing for pregnant, low-income women seeking an alternative to abortion, sued last year. They challenged an ordinance passed by aldermen in February 2017 that prohibited discrimination in employment or access to housing on the basis of reproductive health decisions such as abortion or the use of contraceptives.

Represented by the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based religious liberty law firm, they sought to prove the ordinance is unconstitutional and violated their First Amendment rights of free speech and expressive association, and also sought an immediate injunction against application of the ordinance.

Lawyers for the city argued that the ordinance exempts both religious and nonreligious entities from being required to provide health care coverage “for reproductive rights.” It also doesn’t violate the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act and is not contrary to a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision on a similar issue, they said in court filings.

On Sunday, U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Fleissig barred the city from enforcing specific paragraphs of the housing and employment provisions of the ordinance against the three plaintiffs.

“This law that claims to protect abortion supporters from discrimination is actually an attempt to suppress the viewpoint of those who believe that abortion is harmful or wrong by making it impossible for them to operate in accordance with their beliefs within the City of St. Louis,” Sarah Pitlyk, special counsel to the Thomas More Society, said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that it took a lawsuit to vindicate the fundamental rights of St. Louis citizens.”

St. Louis City Counselor Julian Bush said Thursday that the ordinance still applies to organizations and employers who do not have a religious mission. Although Fleissig’s decision bars enforcement of the ordinance against the three plaintiffs, Bush said, “We’re obviously not going to enforce it against similarly-situated organizations.”

Bush said Fleissig’s order “has to be studied and absorbed and decisions have to be made about an appeal.”

Alderwoman Megan Green, the original sponsor of the anti-discrimination ordinance, drew a line between the ruling and President Donald Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“From the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh to restrictive laws passed at the state level, to this ruling, it is clear that reproductive health rights are under attack at every level of our government and every branch of our government,” she said Wednesday. “We are currently analyzing the repercussions of the ruling and evaluating what we can do locally to ensure that St. Louis City is a safe and welcoming place for all people regardless of their private reproductive health choices.”

Robert Patrick of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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