Individual Members of the Medical Licensing Board of Indiana v. Anonymous Plaintiff 1

Becket Role:
Amicus
Case Start Date:
January 17, 2023
Deciding Court:
Indiana Supreme Court
Original Court:
Marion Superior Court

Case Snapshot

Religious believers of many faiths have been protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which Congress passed with overwhelming support in 1993 to ensure that the federal government cannot unreasonably violate Americans’ religious freedom. Since then, many states have adopted their own RFRA laws to strike this balance; those states cannot burden a person’s sincere religious beliefs without having a compelling reason for doing so. In Indiana, however, a group is trying to use the state RFRA to argue that Indiana’s new abortion law violates their religious beliefs, which they say compel them to ensure that they have the freedom to obtain abortions up to the ninth month of pregnancy.

The plaintiffs asked the court to allow abortions for a broad class of women, even though they do not share the same religious beliefs or explain exactly how each woman’s religious exercise is said to be burdened. They are not claiming the right to have an abortion to save their own lives or prevent serious harm to their health, which is already covered by Indiana’s law. Their arguments fail RFRA’s carefully balanced test, because they have not shown how sincere religious beliefs will be burdened and because Indiana has a compelling interest in protecting individual human life, and sometimes continuing a pregnancy is the only way to protect a life. There is no legal history of a religious right to have an abortion.

Status

In March 2024, the state appeals court ruled for the plaintiffs. The state appealed the decision to Indiana’s State Supreme Court.

Case Summary

Balancing government authority and religious freedom 

In 1993, Congress passed RFRA with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses. RFRA aimed to provide robust religious freedom protections for all people while balancing the important interests of the federal government As President Bill Clinton said when he signed it into law, “What [RFRA] basically says it that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion.” 

Since its passing, 23 states, including Indiana, have adopted their own versions of RFRA that resemble the federal law. For a RFRA claim to be successful in Indiana, a person must show that they have a sincere religious belief, and that the government has or will soon violate that belief. If these conditions are met, the responsibility is on the government to show that its restriction furthers an important government interest in the least restrictive way possible. 

RFRA weaponized to combat Indiana abortion law 

The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs returned abortion to the states, opening up a vigorous debate with religious voices on both sides. Prior to Dobbs, even though many states restricted abortion after viability, no court had used RFRA to grant a right to abortion. Now,  in Indiana, a group has sought to use Indiana’s RFRA to short-circuit the debate. Members of the class action have asserted a religious belief that they should have the right to abort their unborn children at any stage of pregnancy.  Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Indiana Catholic Conference, which advocates in favor of both life and religious freedom and believes they are complementary, not conflicting, rights.  

Lawsuit against Indiana flunks the RFRA test 

The brief explains how this RFRA case fails at every step. Restrictions on abortion are unusual, perhaps unique. In most cases, the government can use a less restrictive alternative to accomplish its goal, while still accommodating the religious objection. Under Indiana law, however, abortion is the direct taking of an individual, innocent life. There is no alternative method to protect that life. Life is not a good that can be obtained from a different purveyor, a security risk that might be avoided through other measures, or a health risk that can be mitigated. Prohibiting abortion is the least restrictive way—indeed, the only way—of furthering Indiana’s compelling interest in protecting a particular life at its earliest, most delicate stage.

Federal and state RFRAs have done tremendous good to help religious believers of all faiths. But this lawsuit flunks the RFRA test and should lose in court.  

On April 4, 2024, the Indiana Appeals Court ruled that the plaintiffs had established a religious right to have an abortion, up until birth. The state has appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court.


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Freedom Restoration Act: Passed by a bipartisan coalition in 1993, this legislation protects religious groups by requiring the government to show a compelling interest and use the least restrictive means possible when its actions would pose a substantial burden on religious exercise.