Monday, November 14, 2011

Personhood USA: Encouraging Establishment of Religion

The state of Mississippi has introduced a bill redefining the word ‘person’ to include “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof”. This would not only make abortions illegal, but would also bring into question the ability to get in vitro fertilization and many types of birth control. Although on the outside, it looks blatantly unconstitutional, Personhood USA (the group heading up these campaigns) has gained enough momentum and signatures to put this issue on the ballot. If such measures were passed, it would be a clear violation of the establishment clause, both aiding one religion, while very clearly hindering others. Many devout Catholics believe that abortion, as well as many forms of birth control. are sins and should be illegal. The very group that is spreading this movement, Personhood USA, is a Christian group promoting a pro-life world where abortion is illegal. However, our law states that it is not only illegal to ban abortions, but it is illegal to establish any one religion.

It should be noted that these types of movements are not only in Mississippi, but in all 50 states, as shown on their website. Mississippi however, is only the second state to have received enough signatures to put the issue on a ballot. The first was Colorado, in which the bill was quickly shot down.

The matter at hand is one of establishment. By passing such a bill, the country would be establishing the belief of some Christians about when life begins. Les Riley, the leader of the Mississippi movement, stated, “We think that God has already told us when life begins... and the court has just not dealt with it”. This is a clear example that the groups goal is to further a particular religious belief. There is no secular purpose at all and it would create extreme entanglement between law and religion. It would also very blatantly aid one religion over another, thus failing every step of the Lemon test. The Supreme Court has already ruled against the banning of abortions in Roe v. Wade, and it would be unconstitutional to reverse such a decision.

While the movement is gaining momentum, it seems very unlikely that any state would ever pass such a law. While the vote was quite close in Mississippi, it ended up not passing. If it had, it would have most likely forced the Supreme Court to get involved and take away something that so clearly violates the first amendment. Members of the ACLU have already filed two lawsuits against the personhood movements across the country, defeating efforts to ban abortions, as well as IVF and stem cell research.

This movement is obviously one that goes directly against the establishment clause. This type of law would not only encourage one religion over another, but would put those in potential harms way if they do not hold the same beliefs (such as black market abortions/IVF, etc). I believe that if any law of this type were to pass anywhere in the country, it would be a clear violation of the first amendment and must be taken away immediately. Although Personhood USA is gaining impressive amounts of signatures, it will never be enough to overthrow one of the most important aspects of our consitution.

8 comments:

Chris R. said...

If establishment is defined as passing laws that reflect religious beliefs, then our entire legal system is itself unconstitutional. Just because certain religious groups agree or disagree with a particular law does not make it unconstitutional. The legislature has the right and the responsibility to pass laws that reflect the views of their constituents. All laws, and the constitution itself, can be viewed from a religious perspective. As for secular purpose, how about the protection of life? This seems to be compelling state interest in the clearest form.

Harry R. said...

I do not think that this law would be a violation of the Establishment Clause. While there may be some religious beliefs contained within the law, the law itself discusses human development from an entirely secular standpoint. While the Roe v Wade precedent suggests the unconstitutionality of this law, this would be based on secular aspects, not religious ones. I therefore feel that this law would be unconstitutional as a violation of a woman's right to privacy as discussed in Roe v Wade, not as a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Jack Ness said...

While this is a two part argument, I do think that one of the parts is a question of establishment. Personhood USA clearly states in their mission statement that they aim to serve Jesus. They are a highly religious organization trying to change a law for a religious belief. To allow the definition of the word "person" to be changed to how this organization wants it would indeed be a violation of the establishment clause. To Chris's argument of the protection of life being a compelling state interest, I agree - in a totally different way. Protection of life means keeping abortion legal.

Andrew Lichtenauer said...

I agree with Jack on this one. Even though the "personhood" movement is secular in practice, its religious background definitely "advances and inhibits" religion." I am not in any way dismissing the significance of the abortion debate in America here, but rather saying that U.S. law must address this controversial issue from a secular perspective, rather than from one that "aims to serve Jesus."

Christy said...

I do not think that just because Personhood USA is a Christian organization and that some religious groups believe abortion should be illegal, does not make this an Establishment case. I agree with Chris, this has to do with a compelling state interest. Abortion is not a religious issue, but a neutral issue having to do with a individual's body and baby. Just because abortion has been associated with religion does not make it a religious matter.

Callie B said...

I agree with the former comments that argue that this case is not an issue of establishment. Religious establishment was not considered in the Roe v. Wade decision making anti-abortion laws unconstitutional. It was a decisions on the basis on of the woman's 9th amendment right's and the protection of the woman's health. It would cause many problems if our laws were forbidden from lining up with religious group's beliefs on issues.

Sam S said...

I also agree that this is not a case involving the establishment clause. The “personhood” group does have religious beliefs however this case is dealing with a secular subject. The precedent, set by Roe v Wade, is a neutral one and the state legislators of Mississippi were correct in not allowing this bill to pass.

Liz Petrillo said...

I believe that this is a secular matter in which religion is debatably involved. This law would not violate the establishment clause, and I feel that the controversy of this matter is more of a political aspect than a religious one, which stands for pro-life. There may be religious background context but someone who is completely non-religous could want the constitution to be pro-life as well, therefore, this situation is much more complicated beyond religion.