Four North Texas-based Methodist ministers sent a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton late last month seeking an exemption from the state’s abortion law, citing religious freedom. It is unclear how the exemption would be carved into the law.
The four ministers are Rev. Katie Newsome of Union Mission Congregation, Rev. Phil Dieke of White Rock United Methodist Church, Rev. Rachel Baughman of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, and Rev. Sheron Patterson of Hamilton Park United Methodist Church.
The ministers said the law banning abortions in the state violates the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act because it prevents them from providing proper guidance to members of their congregations on decisions about abortion according to their denomination’s principles.
“As part of their work as ordained ministers, they provide pastoral care and confidential counseling to pregnant people and their families as they make decisions about abortions,” the minister’s attorney Jessica Vittorio said in the letter.
Texas Senate Bill 8, also known as the “Heartbeat Bill,” allows any person to bring a civil action against anyone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion.”
The ministers’ letter said SB8 does not allow them to follow the United Methodist Church’s Social Principle, a foundational part of their denomination.
While the Methodist Church’s belief in “the sanctity of unborn human life makes [the church] reluctant to approve abortion, [it is] equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child,” it said.
The doctrine states that the denomination is against abortions, particularly late-term abortions, but the church does not entirely object to or seek to prohibit all abortions.
Instead, it states, “a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.”
“We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases, we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers,” it said.
Rev. Baughman said on Inside Texas Politics that SB 8 makes ministers and other clergy members hesitant to offer counseling, guidance, or even have a conversation with women who are pregnant.
She said they fear they could be seen as “aiding and abetting” if they counsel that person to get an abortion, which could open them up to penalties.
“In my practice of counseling and offering guidance in terms of religious guidance, and guidance for what the church says, and what we hold as important social principles for how we conduct our lives as Christian people, my understanding is that SB 8 would burden my ability to do that, would even challenge the possibility that I be prosecuted for doing so, even for matters of life versus life,” Baughman said.
AG Paxton has not commented on the ministers’ letter, though he has argued for religious liberty in the past. Still, after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, Paxton affirmed his commitment to making abortion illegal in the state.
“My office is specifically authorized to pursue and recover … civil penalties, and I will strictly enforce this law,” he wrote. “Further, we will assist any local prosecutor who pursues criminal charges.”
The Dallas Express reached out to Texas Values, an anti-abortion group, for their position on the ministers’ arguments. Jonathan Saenz, the president and attorney for the group responded:
“No one has the right to kill an innocent human being. With the $100 million in the Alternatives to Abortion program, there [are] numerous life-affirming charitable community groups ready and available to support and assist women and their babies all across Texas. More information can be found at TexasHeartbeatLaw.com. Texas Values will continue to walk alongside women and innocent babies.”