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Appeals court hears arguments in religious freedom challenge to Indiana abortion ban

The northwestern exterior of the Indiana Statehouse, on a late winter day.
Brandon Smith
IPB News
Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in 2015 and is a legal test for determining whether a state law can burden a person's exercise of their religious beliefs.

Hoosiers are a step closer to finding out whether Indiana’s abortion ban illegally clashes with the state’s religious freedom guarantees.

Attorneys for the state and a group of anonymous women argued over abortion and the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, before a panel of appeals court judges Wednesday.

RFRA is a legal test. It says a state law can only substantially burden a person’s exercise of their religious beliefs if the law is advancing a compelling interest and does so in the least restrictive way possible.

Appeals court judges repeatedly asked Indiana Solicitor General James Barta how the state can have a compelling interest to ban abortion when it has exceptions to that ban, like for cases of rape or incest.

“If this court looks more broadly to federal cases applying [RFRA], none of the cases have said simply because there’s an exception, the state doesn’t have a compelling interest,” Barta said.

READ MORE: Indiana’s near-total abortion ban set to take effect Aug. 1. Here’s what you need to know

ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk, representing the anonymous women, was asked whether their religious exercise was really being burdened, when none of the women are pregnant or seeking abortions.

“It’s the change in their sexual behavior,” Falk said. “They have taken steps today solely because of this statute, solely because of their religious beliefs.”

There is no timetable for the appeals court decision. And any ruling will almost certainly be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Brandon is our Statehouse bureau chief. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.

Brandon Smith has covered the Statehouse for Indiana Public Broadcasting for more than a decade, spanning three governors and a dozen legislative sessions. He's also the host of Indiana Week in Review, a weekly political and policy discussion program seen and heard across the state. He previously worked at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri and WSPY in Plano, Illinois. His first job in radio was in another state capitol - Jefferson City, Missouri - as a reporter for three stations around the Show-Me State.