An abortion ban making its way through the courts has local religious groups asking, ‘Does any of that look like how you know God?’

Seven local religious communities came together to submit a brief in support of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah’s lawsuit challenging Utah’s abortion trigger ban.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bishop Phyllis Spiegel at the Episcopal Diocesan Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.

The day after Luna Banuri moved to Chicago from Pakistan, she gave birth to twins — they were eight weeks early. Before the two babies were crawling — or could even lift their heads — Banuri found out she was pregnant again, in the middle of a numbing Great Lakes winter.

“I was devastated,” Banuri said. “And, you know, almost could not imagine that my body could go through this. That’s when I started looking at what does my religion, my faith, say?”

Banuri did what many Muslim women do when faced with hard decisions — she turned to her community. She consulted her faith leaders, her friends, her parents and her in-laws, and learned that in the school of Islam she subscribes to, and under Illinois law, she could have an abortion before reaching 120 days of pregnancy.

Two decades later, Banuri lives in Utah and is leading the state’s Muslim Civic League. She now finds herself fighting for other Muslim women to have that same choice.

In January, her organization joined a half dozen other religious groups in submitting an amicus brief in support of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah’s lawsuit challenging a 2020 trigger ban on abortions. That law went into effect last summer after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson, determining that abortion is not a constitutionally protected right and that policies surrounding it should be left up to states.

A district court put Utah’s trigger law on hold, so abortions are now allowed up to 18 weeks. The amicus brief argues that the law infringes on religious liberties enshrined in the Utah Constitution.

Although, as a Muslim, it would have been OK for her to have an abortion, Banuri made the choice to carry on with her pregnancy. She now has a 21-year-old son, who she joked is “the most beautiful oops that I have ever done.”

“I think each of us explores faith in many different ways and find our own callings,” Banuri said. “I do know that my religion allows me to take care of myself.”

‘When God breathes life’

When the Supreme Court announced its Dobbs decision, Rabbi David Levinsky sent an email to the members of his congregation at Temple Har Shalom in Park City calling them to action as abortion policies in Utah went into limbo.

“I emailed him back and said, ‘You know, I think there’s something ... special that Reformed Jews have the ability to contribute,’” said Steve Edwards, who grew up in a Sephardic Jewish family in New York City, and has been religious his whole life.

That started Levinsky down the path of reaching out to other congregations throughout the state who oppose a ban on abortion, and eventually teaming up with them to write and submit the amicus brief.

Bill Becker, whose Jewish family has roots in Utah as far back as the 1860s, has also played a role in bringing the brief to fruition and was among those presenting it at a news conference on the steps of the Utah Capitol on an overcast afternoon in last month.

“My personal religious and moral responsibilities are firmly grounded and have been protected for over 150 years in Utah,” Becker said then, pointing to the numerous versions of the state’s constitution since 1849.

The constitution Utah adopted when it was admitted as a state — of which one of the drafters was a Jew — opens up the religious liberty section of its Declaration of Rights saying, “The rights of conscience shall never be infringed.”

Utah’s abortion ban, passed by the Legislature in 2020, does exactly that, the brief argues. The vast majority of the state’s lawmaking body are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which views abortion as a sin except in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother’s life is at risk.

“If you believe in the golden rule, just think about how would you feel if somebody came to you and said, your most private personal moral decisions are going to be regulated by somebody else’s faith,” Edwards said. “You would be up in arms and you would be completely irate. Why would you do that to anybody else?”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bill Becker and Steve Edwards at Temple Har Shalom in Park City on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.

Both Edwards and Becker are Republicans — but not “Trump Republicans,” they emphasized — and Reform Jews, a more progressive strand of Judaism, and the predominant one in the U.S. Since 1967, the Central Conference of American Rabbis have taken a position against restrictive abortion laws.

From rabbi to rabbi, congregation to congregation, the interpretation of scripture and approaches to offering counsel on reproductive choices varies. Edwards said Jews are an “independent-minded group of people,” explaining that Jacob took on the name Israel after he wrestled with an angel.

“So our obligation is to wrestle with what God gave us and make it our own,” Edwards said. Reform Judaism’s opposition to abortion bans, he said, is grounded in interpretations of two parts of the Torah.

Genesis describes the life of man starting as God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” Edwards noted, saying a tradition in Judaism is that “your soul comes when God breathes life.” He also pointed to Exodus chapter 21, which says if a person harms a pregnant woman and the fetus dies, he owes the family money. But if the woman dies, they have committed murder.

Its stance on abortion is also informed by the Jewish “law of the pursuer,” which requires that if someone is coming to kill another, Jews are obligated to kill them first.

“Reformed Jews have looked at this tradition and said it’s not just putting the woman’s life in danger — it is also the woman’s mental health in danger, the woman’s economic health, the woman’s family circumstances,” Edwards said. “Essentially, the conclusion is that these things are personal decisions that need to be guided by the tradition.”

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For a legislative body to make laws on such decisions while assuming the Christian theological position of characterizing a fetus as an unborn child is “a slap in the face,” Edwards said.

“If my daughter wants to get an abortion in those states (that ban it), she can’t, even though she may be compelled or allowed by Jewish law to have it,” Edwards said. “I mean, this is basically intrusion of government into the most private decisions. It’s an affront.”

Speaking louder

With her own young daughter in tow at church one Sunday morning in Virginia, Bishop Phyllis Spiegel felt a call “straight out of the blue from God” to join the priesthood. That day, the priest leading the services happened to be a woman.

“She turned around and said, ‘Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,’ and I heard, ‘That’s what I want you to do,’” Spiegel said.

After more than 20 years of following that voice, Spiegel became the second woman to lead Utah’s Episcopal diocese last year. The Episcopal Church is the oldest Protestant denomination in the Beehive State.

Being so new to Utah, Spiegel was hesitant to sign on to the brief. “I went, ‘Whoa, I am really new,’” Spiegel said, adding, “I was like, ‘Oh, but I’m not new to this issue.’”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Episcopal Diocese of Utah ordains and consecrates the Rev. Phyllis Spiegel as the 12th bishop of Utah at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.

The Episcopal Church, like the Central Conference of American Rabbis, has since 1967 been opposed to “any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions (about the termination of pregnancy) and to act upon them.”

And it’s not the only Christian denomination to take a stand against such laws. Joining Spiegel on the brief are First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City and Mount Tabor Lutheran Church.

According to a Gallup poll released last week, the percentage of both Catholics and Protestants who are dissatisfied with abortion laws, and want less strict ones, has increased by more than 10% among both groups in the last year. Currently, 38% of Catholics and 37% of Protestants fall into that camp.

That stance on abortion, Spiegel said, came as the Episcopal Church was beginning to have discussions about women having a role in its leadership.

“Then (if) you say, but we’re going to control your body in this other way — there’s a disingenuous nature to that conversation,” Spiegel said.

Outside of her office in the diocese is a sprawling white marble relief by Belgian artist Égide Rombeaux portraying the story of Jesus Christ encountering the Samaritan woman at the well, who lived with a man she was not married to.

The story is cherished by Christians, who see it as demonstrating Jesus’ acceptance and love of all people, no matter their background. And that story, Spiegel said, should influence Christians’ approach to abortion.

“We could just live into that scripture ... to take the listening ears of Jesus at the well with the woman and to then say, ‘What does it mean when I listened to you? Because you are the same as me. If you are suffering, I am suffering. If you are terrified by a life circumstance, then I need to live into your terror, not as judge and jury,’” Spiegel said.

When women come to her for counsel on having had, or deciding to have an abortion, Spiegel said most of her work is undoing the damage done by other Christian churches in making those women feel they are “unforgivable.” That people have been led to feel that way about themselves is “heartbreaking,” Spiegel said, and it makes her angry.

“When did Jesus ever say that you were unforgivable?” Spiegel asked. “Jesus doesn’t say that. When have you heard people, and often men, in religious authority say that? When have you heard people screaming with placards in their hands saying that? Does any of that look like how you know God?”

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It is especially important for Christians to fight for abortion rights, Spiegel said, because it is part of the call to serve the poor. Nearly one in ten Utahns lives in poverty, and many don’t have the financial support to raise a child, she noted.

Anti-abortion activists often invoke God when they work to convince lawmakers to defend the unborn. The misconception that all Christians are against abortion, though, means that the Christians who support a right to an abortion need to “speak louder,” Spiegel said. And the brief is one way they’re doing that.

“I think that a lot of mainline denominations are realizing that we’ve been quiet, because ... we don’t want to infringe upon somebody’s relationship with God,” Spiegel said. “But what we’ve done instead is failed to really be present to people who desperately need a relationship with a loving God.”

‘Tying our camel’

The Quran encourages Muslims to also speak up, Banuri said.

In Arabic, it says, “Whoever witnesses something evil, let him change it with his hand. And if he’s unable, then with his tongue, and if he is unable even with that, then he should resist it with his heart — but that is the weakest form of faith,” Banuri translated.

Like Spiegel, Banuri feels restricting abortion primarily harms people who are economically disadvantaged, and Muslims, like other religions, similarly feel a responsibility to help the poor.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Luna Banuri, the executive director of the Utah Muslim Civic League, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.

Banuri is not a cleric, but a leader of a community group that acts as a voice for Muslims in Utah.

Muslims live throughout the state, are of all races, and come from all parts of the world. Consequently, they don’t all agree on the extent to which abortion should be allowed.

“There never will be one opinion,” Banuri noted. “But what do American Muslims think, and especially Utahns? They are not comfortable with the way things are in this state at the moment.”

Some schools of Islam, like Banuri’s, believe abortion should be allowed up until 120 days of pregnancy, while others say no one should ever have an abortion. Others, still, “say Allah is forgiving and flexible at any time,” Banuri said.

The Detroit-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, which aims to increase understanding of Muslim Americans, published research last year that found that most Muslims — 56% — believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Some abortion rights activists have wrongly compared abortion bans to Islam’s Sharia, which is made up of precepts based on sacred texts, Banuri said. But most Muslim countries, she pointed out, don’t have complete abortion bans, and several don’t have any restrictions at all.

“There’s a perception that we cannot, or are not allowed as Muslim women to make our own choices,” Banuri said. “That in spirit is not Islam. And people who choose to enforce a ban on us are no better than the abusers that are around us or claim to be superior than us.”

The Prophet Muhammad in his time advanced women’s rights, allowing them to own property and seek a divorce, Banuri said. And because he is the last prophet in Islam, he also in his last sermon taught Muslims the importance of making their own choices with the guidance of sacred texts, encouraging them to “reason well.”

“Why we’re doing this is that, you know, Islam does not permit one to be a bystander in any form of injustice,” Banuri said. “In fact, one is morally obligated to do everything in one’s power to eradicate injustice, whether that’s physical oppression or biased news coverage.”

One Hadith, or saying, from the Prophet Muhammad recounts his conversation with a Bedouin who did not tie up his camel, saying he put his trust in Allah. “(The prophet) replied, tie your camel first, and then put your trust in Allah,” Banuri said.

“We are tying our camel through this brief and ... we believe in the system in this country, that it will do the just and the right thing.”

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