Confusion Over How Anti-Abortion Bill Could Affect St. Louis

Summer Ballentine/Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – Missouri lawmakers are at a standstill on broad anti-abortion legislation more than a month after Republican Gov. Eric Greitens called them into a special session to deal with abortion issues.

The legislation calls for several new regulations, such as annual state inspections of abortion clinics. But one of the provisions causing the most confusion addresses a St. Louis ordinance that city leaders say is intended to prevent discrimination based on reproductive health decisions, such as pregnancy and abortion.

Greitens and other critics say the St. Louis ordinance could infringe on the rights of abortion opponents or prevent anti-abortion groups from only hiring staffers who share their views.

But the governor also says media outlets have mischaracterized how the ordinance would be affected by the legislation being considered by state lawmakers.

Here’s a rundown of the fight over the ordinance and of the overall legislation:

WHAT DOES THE ORDIANCE SAY?

St. Louis’ ordinance bans discrimination in housing and employment based on “reproductive health decisions,” such as having an abortion, taking birth control or becoming pregnant. Largely symbolic, the local law was approved in the Democratic-leaning city in February as a pre-emptive move against any new abortion laws approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

A group of local Catholics sued the city three months later, saying the ordinance could force a Catholic school to hire teachers who support abortion, require landlords with anti-abortion views to rent or sell property to organizations that promote or provide abortions, and might apply to some faith-based pregnancy care centers. The lawsuit is pending.

St. Louis Alderwoman Megan Ellyia Green, who sponsored the ordinance, said it applies only to non-religious businesses. She said there are exemptions for religious organizations in hiring, providing reproductive health care coverage and from renting or selling property for abortion facilities.

Green said her decision to introduce the ordinance wasn’t sparked by any specific case or current law.

HOW WOULD THE LEGISLATION AFFECT THE ST. LOUIS ORDINANCE?

It’s unclear, in part because of confusion over what St. Louis’ ordinance does and of the broad language in the bill.

The legislation bans municipalities from enacting or enforcing “any order, ordinance, rule, regulation, policy, or other similar measure that prohibits, restricts, limits, controls, directs, interferes with, or otherwise adversely affects an alternatives-to-abortion agency” or such an agency’s staff.

The agencies, also known as pregnancy care centers, discourage abortion and provide care for pregnant women and their babies. Supporters say protections are needed in state law because not all centers are church-operated and shouldn’t be forced to hire people who don’t believe what they believe.

Jim Layton, an attorney who spent about two decades working in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office under Democratic administrations, said the bill could undo parts of St. Louis’ ordinance by exempting all pregnancy care centers in the city. But he said a court also could interpret the legislation’s wording to fully overturn St. Louis’ ordinance, or any local law, that touches on any one of the specific preemptions.

Green, the alderwoman, said she doesn’t think the legislation would have much impact on St. Louis’ ordinance. She said the legislation would only add non-religious pregnancy care centers to the list of the ordinance’s exempt organizations.

WHAT DOES THE GOVERNOR SAY?

Greitens released a video on July 5 calling out news outlets and a feminist blog that reported the use of birth control could cause Missouri women to lose jobs and housing. Greitens said that was “100 percent false, it was fake news.”

The governor noted that Newsweek later ran a correction saying its story was inaccurate and that other news outlets, including The Associated Press, had erroneously reported the impact of the legislation.

The Newsweek correction, when citing other erroneous stories, linked to an AP story that said the legislation “would undo the St. Louis ordinance that bans discrimination in housing and employment based on `reproductive health decisions,’ such as pregnancies or abortions.” The AP didn’t report the legislation would allow such discrimination.

Greitens’ spokesman, Parker Briden, said the legislation would pre-empt any local ordinance that might harm pregnancy care centers, force people to rent or sell building space to abortion facilities, require people to participate in abortion procedures against their beliefs or require employers to cover abortions in health insurance plans.

WHAT ELSE IS IN THE LEGISLATION?

The bill contains several other provisions targeting abortion.

One proposal would give the Missouri Attorney General’s Office new powers to prosecute violations of abortion law. Under current law, that power is limited to local prosecutors. Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley opposes abortion but hasn’t said whether he supports that provision of the bill.

The bill would also require annual inspections of abortion clinics by the state health department. Another provision would create a misdemeanor offense for abortion clinic staff who ask that ambulances responding to medical emergencies at the facilities not use sirens or flashing lights.

The governor is pushing the restrictions and called the special legislative session to address them in part because of a federal judge’s ruling in April that blocked several Missouri abortion laws.

WHAT’S TAKING SO LONG?

Lawmakers were called into the special session starting on June 12. House members approved a revised version of the bill on June 20 that ramped-up a Senate version of the bill, including adding the provision on ambulance calls.

Senators haven’t taken up the bill since then. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe said lawmakers will reconvene July 24. He’s said the delay is the result of trying to work around scheduling issues, including one senator’s wedding.

Republican Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard has said he’s unsure if Republicans will try take up the stronger House version or make more changes to it.

Legislative staff members say lawmakers have until Aug. 11 to finish the special session, though Greitens could call them back for another.

(© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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