Watch a previous report on Issue 1 in the video player above.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – For faith leaders and their congregations, Ohio’s Issue 1 is more than a political or moral issue about abortion rights, it’s also a religious one.

As the Nov. 7 election inches closer, religious congregations across the state are confronting the statewide ballot issue to constitutionally protect abortion access. While Issue 1 would protect abortion until fetal viability and other reproductive health decisions, for many faith leaders and their affiliated organizations, the election is about much more than the decision to terminate a pregnancy.

To some, speaking about Issue 1 is about supporting mothers in need or opposing government overreach. For others, it’s an integral part of their faith – whether they support abortion access or not.

To urge a vote – or not

Some faith leaders and congregations have taken official, and sometimes public, stances against Issue 1.  

“As your bishop, I am calling you to action. I am calling you to vote ‘no’ in November,” Bishop Earl Fernandes said in a September video about Issue 1 on the Diocese of Columbus website.

The Catholic church as a whole has been a staunch opponent of abortion for decades, and the Ohio dioceses are no exception. The Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland dioceses donated a combined $900,000 to Protect Women Ohio ahead of the August special election viewed by many as the precursor to the abortion rights amendment vote in November. Ohio’s dioceses have also banded together with the Catholic Conference of Ohio to oppose Issue 1.

Like other groups opposed to Issue 1, the Catholic Conference of Ohio emphasizes what Fernandes called the “dangers” of the abortion rights amendment: its gender-neutral language could open the door to challenges to Ohio’s parental consent requirement for minors seeking abortions. It allows for abortions later in pregnancy of “fully formed babies.” It endangers the health and safety of women, and it is out of step with the Catholic faith.

At the end of his video, Fernandes urged parishioners to vote in droves against Issue 1. But not all faith leaders believe that houses of worship should encourage congregants how to vote.

While the Congregation Tifereth Israel does not have an official stance on Issue 1, Rabbi Hillel Skolnik supports abortion access as a matter of Jewish faith. He’ll discuss Issue 1 with congregants, but he said it’s important that those attending the synagogue understand what Judaism teaches about abortion – which is that the life of the mother should be prioritized over the life of the fetus.

At the same time, he said, he readily speaks publicly alongside other faith leaders in support of the abortion rights amendment.

“I recognize the fact that by saying my name, and by saying where I work, it has a sense of, you know, ‘This is the opinion of the synagogue,’ and that is, without question, a blurry line,” Skolnik said. “I think that especially in this kind of moment, when it comes to Issue 1, you recognize the blurry line, you walk in that gray area because it’s too important to not walk there.”

Like the Catholic Dioceses, other houses of worship across the state have taken a much more explicit approach to the proposed state constitutional amendment. 

“I talk about Issue 1 everywhere I go. I talk about Issue 1 with anybody,” Rev. Terry Williams of the Orchard Hill United Church of Christ in Chillicothe said.

Williams’ church joined other Ohio affiliates of the United Church of Christ to formally oppose Issue 1 in August — an effort to require 60% approval on constitutional amendments — and support Issue 1 in November, he said. It wasn’t a surprising decision; the United Church of Christ has publicly supported reproductive rights for decades.

He said it’s important for him to speak openly about supporting Issue 1 because Christians of all denominations believe in access to abortion, and other churches’ loud opposition to the procedure is often seen as the majority – or only – opinion. He feels compelled on a personal level, too, pushed by the stories of hundreds of people he’s counseled through the decision to get an abortion.

Issue 1 is about more than abortion

Leaders of all faiths and opinions on the abortion rights amendment emphasized that Issue 1 is about more than the procedure. On a practical level, it’s about access to other reproductive healthcare, including fertility treatment, contraception and miscarriage care, which are also protected under the amendment.

Miscarriage care and protections for those who miscarry is a constant topic of conversation in Williams’ church, he said. Appalachian Ohioans have historically lacked access to reliable medical care, and fears about not being able to receive proper treatment are deeply rooted.

“When people in my church hear that there may be a question about whether or not a person should get access to treatment for an ectopic pregnancy, treatment for [an abortion] that needs to happen because they have a fetus that’s not compatible with life, they’re really scared because that is a life-and-death question for people who already don’t have the best option for medical care,” Williams said.

For Brian Williams, founder of Hope City House of Prayer in Columbus, opposing Issue 1 – and abortion access generally – is neither the start nor the end of advocacy for life, he said. 

Brian Williams is one of more than 100 signatories of a Choose Life Ohio letter denouncing Issue 1. Like many who signed the letter, Brian Williams is a Black religious leader who believes that abortion is a matter of racial equality. 

Black women accounted for nearly half of all abortions that occurred in Ohio in 2022, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Brian Williams said the overrepresentation of Black women among those undergoing abortions points to how Black lives are undervalued.

Women in vulnerable positions should be supported, he said, not pushed to abortions. That’s why the Hope City House of Prayer offers free infant and toddler supplies and connects mothers with nonprofit organizations.

“We’ve always had a pro-life kind of stance,” Brian Williams said. “We can’t just be pro-life when the baby’s in the womb; we have to be pro-life from womb to tomb.”

The call to support life at all stages also motivates the Center for Christian Virtue to oppose Issue 1, said its president, Aaron Baer. He said the November election has “awakened Christians to stand up like really never before” – and the center has reacted to that awakening accordingly. 

The center has produced its own pamphlets, videos and bulletins about Issue 1 to provide to churches to disperse among their members, Baer said. Outside the statehouse at the Ohio March for Life in early October, he said the center has focused its messaging on what it sees as a threat to parental rights.

“This is broader than a political issue,” Baer said. This is a moral issue. This is about our children and daughters, and we need to oppose this.”

Brian Williams said he’s spoken at length to churchgoers about Issue 1, but like Skolnik, he said he doesn’t want to instruct congregants how to vote or what to believe. Rather, he said, church leaders go through the amendment with a “fine tooth comb” to explain the implications of the amendment beyond abortion.

“Just to be transparent, we try to offer counterarguments,” he said. “We want our congregation – and I think most churches want their congregations – to make informed decisions based on their convictions, and to go confidently to the voting booth not feeling coerced or manipulated by either side.”

Making space for disagreement

Operating a house of worship means recognizing and welcoming the fact that people of all beliefs will congregate together, Skolnik said. In Ohio’s current political climate, that means acknowledging the variety of opinions on Issue 1.

“You walk into a synagogue and it doesn’t matter the denomination, there are going to be people who align with the political right, people who align with the political left, and that is part of what makes it a house of gathering,” Skolnik said.

Terry Williams feels similarly. As a member of Faith Choice Ohio, he’s embarked on a statewide tour to talk specifically about how to speak about abortion with fellow people of faith, especially those with different views. While the United Church of Christ supports abortion rights, he acknowledged that people in his own church had widely different personal beliefs on the procedure. Many who oppose abortion personally feel that bans on abortion represent government overreach, he said.

Anti-abortion protesters infiltrated one event in Findlay, he said, but attendees listened compassionately to the protesters – and heartily debriefed afterward about their experiences living in a loudly anti-abortion community of faith.

“They said this was healing, this was cathartic, this was spiritual – which, for an educational presentation, I’ll take it,” he said.