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A Tampa rabbi is suing Florida over its 15-week abortion ban

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg is just one of seven faith leaders filing lawsuits against the state.

TAMPA, Fla — The rabbi of a Tampa synagogue is suing the state of Florida, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, State Attorney Ginger Madden and other state leaders over the newly-implemented 15-week abortion ban.

HB 5, the Reducing Fetal and Infant Mortality bill, bans most abortions after 15 weeks from the start of a woman's last menstrual cycle. While it provides exceptions if the mother's life is endangered or if the fetus is considered to have a "fetal abnormality," it doesn't provide exceptions for victims of rape, incest or sex trafficking.

The bill immediately faced protest and legal challenges on the grounds of privacy and religious freedom. In June, a Palm Beach County synagogue sued Florida over the ban; and toward the end of the same month, a Florida judge temporarily blocked the ban, ruling it unconstitutional.

The state appealed, and the law went back into effect on July 5.

Now, adding onto a slew of religious challenge facing the bill, three rabbis, two reverends and a Buddhist lama are coming together to sue the state over its ban.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, is the leader of Congregation Beth Am in Tampa. He joined the other faith leaders to file a lawsuit that claims the abortion law is a violation of their freedom of free exercise of religion and speech that are guaranteed by both the state and federal constitutions.

Discussion on abortion is not new for Jewish people, he said.

Judaism has a thousands of years old tradition that states abortion is permitted in situations after 15 weeks, Rosenberg explained. So, this abortion ban is directly against Jewish law. 

The Jewish tradition supports a woman's right to have an abortion, at least in some situations, right until the very moment of birth, he said. Although, he called those instances tragic.

“The mother's life takes precedence over the over the unborn baby, literally up until the moment of birth," Rosenberg said. "At any point if the mother's life is in danger, or health is seriously threatened, she is permitted and some would even say required to have an abortion.”

Many religious authorities say a mother's emotional health should be considered as well.

"So a woman who had suffered severe distress can, according to some authorities, pursue an abortion, and there aren't specific limits put on the time," Rosenberg said.

Another point of contention is the bill's criminalization of those who aid and abet in an abortion. The lawsuit claims these guidelines are vague and force plaintiffs to broadly interpret them out of fear of prosecution.

According to Jewish beliefs, religious leaders sometimes offer counsel on decisions, including on pregnancy and abortion, the lawsuit claims. 

In his own career, Rosenberg has only had conversations like this a handful of times, he said. 

"When someone has come to me and asked me for guidance about a possible abortion, it's a complicated, nuanced discussion," Rosenberg said. "I tell them both reasons Judaism would allow it and why Judaism might suggest they shouldn't, and ultimately, it becomes their decision under my guidance."

The plaintiffs argue that under HB 5 and Florida’s criminal law, “Plaintiffs are at risk of prosecution for counseling women, girls, and families to obtain an abortion beyond the narrow bounds of HB 5 as someone who aids and abets the crime. Under Florida’s aiding and abetting law, they commit the crime itself by counseling in favor of it.”

Rosenburg said this interferes with his ability to counsel female congregants on abortion. 

"This law actually prohibits me from teaching and counseling fully in the Jewish tradition," he said. 

Since the 15-week ban went into effect, Rosenberg said he hasn't had to counsel any of his congregants on an abortion decision, but the ban would not affect this discussion.

"If a woman were to come to me for guidance right now, while this law still stands, I would break the law and give her the Jewish guidance that she was requesting," he said.

The independent decision to participate in the filing of this lawsuit was not made lightly, Rosenberg said.

"I am adamant that women have the right to choose," he said. "I'm adamant that Jewish tradition supports that position. So that part of it was very simple for me. I understand that by participating in this lawsuit, I am involving my synagogue."

However, he said he's received an outpouring of support from his congregation. While legally, he is speaking for himself, he said, he knows he is really speaking from within the Jewish tradition and on behalf of many congregants. 

Many of the women in his congregation are furious, he said. 

"They are furious and they are afraid," Rosenberg said. "They are furious to have their bodily autonomy taken away. They're furious to have their Jewish decision making taken away."

Danielle Moriber, a partner at Spiro Harrison law firm — one of the firms representing the case, said ideally this lawsuit will deem the 15-week ban unconstitutional.

While this isn't the first lawsuit filed against the state over the ban, it's unlike previous challenges.

"This lawsuit is exclusively focused on a religious liberty challenge and speech concerns that come within that world," she said. "It's really a novel approach to challenging abortion bans from that perspective."

Moriber hopes this lawsuit can change the discussion on abortion as well.

"There are a number of religious minorities and other religious people, including our clergy plaintiffs here, who's religious views and exercise of their religion are substantially burdened by this law," she said. "The suggestion that it's religious or secular is really truly inaccurate when describing the American public. And so it's important from our perspective that the public generally understand that and be able to have that conversation."

10 Tampa Bay reached out to both the offices of Attorney General Ashley Moody and Gov. Ron DeSantis for statements on this lawsuit.

Moody said, she will continue to defend the state statute as it is the responsibility of the Florida Attorney General's Office.

“To be abundantly clear, terminating a pregnancy at 15 weeks requires ripping apart, limb-by-limb, a baby, which medical evidence has shown likely feels pain," she said in the statement. "It is certainly newsworthy that these religious organizations are bringing suit to challenge Florida’s ban of that practice."

The governor's office said it maintains the same stance it has expressed towards other legal challenges to HB 5: DeSantis is anti-abortion at or before 15 weeks. 

"We believe HB 5 will ultimately withstand all legal challenges," Christina Pushaw, spokeswoman for DeSantis wrote in an email. "The struggle for life is not over."

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