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Judge temporarily blocks Indiana abortion ban on religious freedom grounds

A wall at the Marion County Community Justice Campus with a sign that reads "Marion Superior Court" and "Marion Circuit Court."
Brandon Smith
IPB News
A Marion County judge ruled that Indiana's near-total abortion ban likely violates the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Indiana’s near-total abortion ban has been halted, again, in state court. This time, a Marion County judge ruled that the ban likely violates Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA.

A group of anonymous women and the organization Hoosier Jews For Choice sued the state in September, arguing the ban infringes on their religious beliefs.

Marion County Judge Heather Welch agreed. RFRA says that a law can't substantially burden a person's religious beliefs or practices unless it advances a compelling governmental interest and does so in the least restrictive way possible.

READ MORE: Lawsuit uses Religious Freedom Restoration Act to challenge Indiana's abortion ban

Welch said the abortion ban fails on all those counts. She wrote that the women have shown that the law is a substantial burden because they’ve changed their behavior – three of them stopped trying to get pregnant, another became abstinent.

Her ruling said Indiana also fails the "compelling governmental interest" prong because the state cannot unilaterally decide when life begins. Attorneys for the state argued that it is compelled to protect life from conception. But Welch said the women – and their faiths – disagree on when life begins.

"This Court finds that the question of when life begins is a theological one, not a factual question for this Court," Welch wrote.

And Welch ruled the ban is not written in the least restrictive way possible. She noted that the state already created exceptions in its abortion law – in some cases of rape or incest and when the pregnant person’s life or serious health is at risk. She said Indiana can’t then refuse to accommodate the exceptions the women are asking for, based on their religious beliefs.

Enforcement of the ban was already halted in a separate lawsuit, which is scheduled to be heardby the state Supreme Court on Jan. 19. That means, through at least then, Indiana’s abortion ban is not in effect.

Contact reporter Brandon at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.

Brandon Smith has covered the Statehouse for Indiana Public Broadcasting for more than a decade, spanning three governors and a dozen legislative sessions. He's also the host of Indiana Week in Review, a weekly political and policy discussion program seen and heard across the state. He previously worked at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri and WSPY in Plano, Illinois. His first job in radio was in another state capitol - Jefferson City, Missouri - as a reporter for three stations around the Show-Me State.