Next month, Tennessee voters will cast their ballots on Amendment One, an effort to amend the state constitution to pave the way to enact additional restrictions on abortion. For months, activists on both sides of the issue have been pouring millions of dollars into the fight. And some Americans may be surprised to learn about one of the groups working to defeat the proposed anti-abortion measure: Local faith leaders.
Amendment One would remove language in the state constitution that defines abortion as a “fundamental” right — ultimately giving Tennessee lawmakers the power to impose new restrictions, like mandatory waiting periods and forced counseling requirements, that are currently considered to be unconstitutional. But a group of clergy in the state is speaking out against the effort to roll back those protections, saying the proposed measure is “flawed and dangerous” because it would give politicians too much power to interfere in women’s personal medical decisions.
At the beginning of October, more than 25 religious leaders joined forces at a Presbyterian church in Memphis to explain why they’re opposed to Amendment One from a faith perspective. Faith leaders will hold a similar event on Tuesday in Nashville, according to the Vote No On One coalition, which is coordinating the effort to push back against the ballot initiative.
“We are working very closely with the No On One campaign to raise that faith voice,” Rev. Rob Keithan, the director of public policy for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), told ThinkProgress. “We have been blown away by how much interest there has been among people of faith who want to do this work. From Memphis to Nashville to Chattanooga to Knoxville, folks are really hungry to change the conversation and change the perception.”
Keithan’s group often organizes around state-level battles over reproductive rights, and ultimately wants to challenge the assumption that all religious people are opposed to abortion. RCRC has previously helped defeat anti-abortion ballot initiatives in Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida.
“Unfortunately, a lot of media coverage still makes the mistake of portraying all religious people on one side of the issue. We see that kind of biased reporting again and again and again — where they’re only covering and representing one side of the story,” Keithan said. “That’s just not true. Our goal is really to make sure that the public in Tennessee sees an accurate picture.”
Indeed, there are several religious denominations that don’t explicitly condemn abortion, emphasizing that the medical procedure should be a personal decision for each family. Most faith groups don’t actually want to overturn Roe v. Wade, and there are increasing examples of religious leaders advocating on behalf of women’s access to contraception and abortion. But many Americans are still surprised to hear that you can be a religious person who supports abortion rights.
“The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” Rev. Dr. Rosalyn Nichols, the pastor of Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church and one of the faith leaders working with No On One, noted in an interview with ThinkProgress. “The loudest voices prevail in our public discourse, and those voice that are more conservative — whatever that means — get the most attention. That’s part of the reason why I made the decision to speak up.”
Nichols explained that her Christian faith, which has taught her to emphasize a personal relationship with God, compels her to oppose efforts to impose barriers to individual liberty.
“For me, this is not about being an advocate for or against abortion,” she said. “As an African American woman and as a woman of faith, it is reprehensible to me that someone would seek to limit the decisions that a woman is able to make about her health. We are very much capable of making those decisions within the confines of our own family, our own faith, and our own community.”
Other clergy in the state have made similar arguments in op-eds published in the Tennessean over the past several months. “God does not compel us, but he gives us choices,” Bishop Calvin C. Barlow Jr. wrote in August. “Judaism recognizes all humans, men and women, as moral decision-makers in their own right, entitled to make their own fundamental medical and reproductive choices,” Rabbi Philip Rice argued in September.
According to Keithan, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice typically finds that Americans are surprised to learn there are people of faith who don’t oppose abortion access. The people who live in Tennessee are no exception. But it starts making more sense to them once they hear more about those religious people’s commitment to issues related to compassion, justice, religious liberty, and caring for the marginalized.
“As soon as we start to talk about some of these other values, people come to understand that this is actually a much more complex conversation than they’ve been led to believe,” he noted. “I think a lot of conservative faith communities really teach that this is a morally black and white issue — but anyone who has struggled with pregnancy and parenting knows that’s not the case. Once we make space for that conversation, we see people opening up.”
Right-wing abortion opponents often argue that the religious communities that support reproductive rights aren’t “true” faiths. This summer, for instance, anti-abortion activists interrupted a church service at a Unitarian Universalist church in New Orleans and told the pro-choice congregants to “repent.” The extremist group that organized that event, Operation Save America, referred to the church as a “synagogue of Satan,” likely because Unitarian Universalists have a long history of affirming abortion rights. Faith leaders like Nichols, however, say that runs counter to some fundamental American values.
“I am a Christian. I have been raised in the Church my entire life. Others may be completely opposed to how I interpret Scripture — but the wonderful thing about being a citizen in the United States of America is the freedom of religion and the freedom to practice that religion individually,” Nichols pointed out.