UPDATE: Missouri House advances school prayer measure

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:02 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 5, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — The state House gave initial approval Monday to a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing Missourians' right to pray in public places, including schools.

Any such prayers would have to be voluntary and nondisruptive, under the proposal.

The House endorsed the proposed change in the Missouri Constitution on a vote of 127-25. If approved on a second House vote and later by the Senate, it would appear on a statewide ballot next year.

Rep. Mike McGhee, R-Odessa, said his measure would not allow anything not already permitted under state law. Rather, he said, it's a response to reports from around the state of students being stopped while trying to pray at public schools.

Since 1875, the Missouri constitution has stated that all people have a right to "worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences" and that citizens cannot be barred from public office or juries or be harassed because of their religious beliefs.

McGhee's amendment would add language specifically requiring schools to ensure students can pray privately or in groups and to display the Bill of Rights in all classrooms. It would also allow clergy members to offer prayers before public meetings.

Rep. Mike Talboy questioned the need to hold a statewide election on a constitutional amendment that would have no practical effect.

"This is akin to us putting up an amendment to the people to rename the state of Missouri, the state of Missouri," said Talboy, D-Kansas City.

Other lawmakers expressed fears of unforeseen consequences.

Generally, the secretary of state's office is responsible for writing ballot summaries of proposed constitutional amendments.

But the House approved its own summary of McGhee's proposal, asking voters if the Missouri Constitution should be amended to ensure that "the right of Missouri citizens to express their religious beliefs shall not be infringed; that school children have the right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools; and that all public schools shall display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution."

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