June 21, 2024


The Legal System

Unitarian and Buddhist ministers are joining a rabbi’s legal fight against Florida’s new abortion law


Two religious leaders — a Unitarian and a Buddhist — plan to join a South Florida rabbi’s legal crusade challenging a new state law banning abortions after 15 weeks, arguing it violates the state Constitution’s right to privacy and freedom of religion.

The retired Unitarian Rev. Harris Riordan and the Buddhist minister Maya Malay confirmed they will file a lawsuit in state court next week, echoing arguments from Rabbi Barry Silver. Silver intends to file his own amended complaint next week along with Rabbi Arthur Wascow, the founder and director of the progressive Jewish organization the Shalom Center.

“We are excited to expand this lawsuit to include outstanding representatives of the Buddhist and Unitarian traditions,” Silver said. “Maya Malay and Harris Riordan are wonderful teachers of their own traditions and have dedicated their lives to improving the world for people of all faiths and religions. 

“We look forward to building coalitions with people of all faiths and backgrounds, including atheists and freethinkers, to repair the wall of separation between church and state and to unite the people of the world to protect human rights and save our precious planet,” Silver added.

Silver’s synagogue, Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor in Palm Beach County, first filed a lawsuit over the Florida law before it took effect July 1. In an updated complaint, the rabbi will add his name as an individual plaintiff, he confirmed to NBC News on Wednesday.

Silver has retained the legal counsel of David Ferleger, a Philadelphia attorney who has argued five times before the U.S. Supreme Court. Ferleger will also represent Riordan and Malay.

“All Floridians have a constitutional right to religious freedom. Florida laws must respect that right,” Ferleger said in a statement. “The law must fall because the abortion law forces Jews to surrender their religious beliefs.”

In general, American Jews consider abortion a basic human right and believe that life begins at birth, not conception. Silver’s original lawsuit states that “abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman.”

The rabbi — a former Democratic member of the Florida House who is also a civil rights lawyer and self-described “Rabbi Rouser” — told NBC News that he believes anti-abortion laws across the U.S. amount to “theocratic tyranny.”

“When life begins is a fundamental religious question, and the government now is trying to answer that for everyone, based on fundamentalist Christianity,” Silver said.

“It’s the height of chutzpah for people to tell the Jewish people what the Bible means and lecture the Jewish people on the sanctity of life,” he added.

In a statement, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said: “Our comment on this lawsuit is the same as our comment on any other legal challenge to the pro-life HB 5 legislation.”

“Governor DeSantis is pro-life, and we believe HB 5 will ultimately withstand all legal challenges,” DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw added, referring to the bill that the governor signed into law. “The struggle for life is not over.”

Silver’s legal battle comes as abortion rights advocates scramble to push back on anti-abortion laws following the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

The rabbi said he expects that other religious organizations will follow his lead in the days and weeks to come, including potential litigants in Mississippi.

The last abortion clinic in that conservative Deep South state — Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which brought the suit that the Supreme Court used to erase Roe — closed almost a week ago.

In an effort to rally more organizations behind his cause, Silver has created an initiative to help other faith organizations — and atheists — push back against anti-abortion legislation across the U.S.

Silver’s initiative, Helping Emancipate Abortion Rights Today (HEART), seeks to “restore abortion rights in a post-Roe v. Wade world” and “allow any person of any belief system to challenge the anti-abortion laws on religious grounds.”

He is not the only Jewish community leader dismayed over the fall of Roe and the harsh new reality for supporters of abortion rights and reproductive freedom.

In statements following the release of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the ruling that overruled Roe, organizations such as the American Jewish Committeethe Anti-Defamation LeagueHillel International and the Women’s Rabbinic Network expressed deep anguish.

“In this moment, our feelings are best embodied by Numbers 11:10: ‘God became exceedingly angry; and Moses despaired.’ … We stand with generations of Jewish scholars who state clearly and unequivocally that abortion access is a Jewish value.” the Women’s Rabbinic Network said.


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