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Columbia Missourian

Amendment 2 affirms right to pray in schools and government settings

By Meredith Hood
August 7, 2012 | 11:20 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Along with choosing party nominees for an array of political positions, Missourians on Tuesday also will be asked whether they want to amend the Missouri Constitution to secure individual religious liberties.

Amendment 2, also known as the "right to pray" bill, was sponsored in the General Assembly by state Rep. Mike McGhee, R-Odessa, and lawmakers in the House and Senate agreed to put it on the ballot. McGhee said that he first sponsored the legislation four years ago and that the language has been altered only slightly.

Ballot language

Here is Amendment 2 as it will appear on Tuesday's ballots:

"Shall the Missouri Constitution 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 State Constitution.

"It is estimated this proposal will result in little or no costs or savings for state and local governmental entities."

Here is the "fair ballot language" offered by the Missouri secretary of state:

"A 'yes' vote will amend the Missouri Constitution to provide that neither the state nor political subdivisions shall establish any official religion. The amendment further provides that a citizen's right to express their religious beliefs regardless of their religion shall not be infringed and that the right to worship includes prayer in private or public settings, on government premises, on public property, and in all public schools. The amendment also requires public schools to display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

"A 'no' vote will not change the current constitutional provisions protecting freedom of religion.

"If passed, this measure will have no impact on taxes."

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Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is based in Washington, D.C., joined with the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois to educate Missouri voters on the potential consequences of passing the amendment.

Greg Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United, called the bill summary troubling.

"You hear it out and you think, 'Who would be opposed to that?'" he said.

But Lipper called the full and complete version of the amendment long, verbose and detailed.

"It resembles something you would put in an apartment lease."

McGhee said that he never used to think such explicit provisions were necessary but that a series of small incidents across the state, in which he said children have been told not to make public displays of their religious beliefs, caused him to think a change is necessary. 

"I believe (religious discrimination) happens more frequently than people think," McGhee said.

McGhee said he has heard about children who were asked not to pray after getting a school lunch, a girl being told not to take her Bible to study hall and a parent explaining how an adult at her child's school told her son to change the words in the song "Jesus Loves Me" to "My momma loves" me while he was on the school playground.

"It's really not such so much the law as it is understanding the law," McGhee said.

He also pointed to events in Franklin County as an example of misunderstanding the right to pray. In March, members of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners were criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union after it received an anonymous complaint that the commission was praying before meetings.

The ACLU sent a letter asking the commission to stop the prayers, but the commission disregarded the request. In May, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of the complainant. The suit asserts that the commission's prayers violate the plaintiff's First and Fourteenth amendment rights because they endorse a particular religion. It asks that the federal court declare the practice unconstitutional.

McGhee said advocacy groups such as the ACLU don't seem to know the law.

"If they want to pray it's OK," McGhee said.

Specific clauses in Amendment 2 address individual rights, student rights, state rights and school responsibilities. The measure would reaffirm individual rights to acknowledge God, to pray and to express any form of religious belief without infringement.

It also would more explicitly define students' classroom rights. The amendment says "students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work (and) that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs."

McGhee said such specific language is being used to ensure the Missouri Constitution matches the U.S. Constitution. He added that issues persist in Missouri despite the U.S. Constitution's superiority. McGhee specifically referenced a situation involving Missouri State University student Emily Brooker.

Brooker was studying at the School of Social Work when professor Frank Kauffman assigned her and other students to write a letter to the state legislature supporting adoption rights for same-sex couples. Brooker did not complete the assignment on the grounds that it conflicted with her religious beliefs, which do not condone a gay family structure.

Brooker was sanctioned by the professor for violating standards of ethics in social work education and was questioned by an ethics committee about her religious beliefs and competency to practice social work.

In November 2006 the Alliance Defense Fund's Center for Academic Freedom, a Christian legal group, filed suit against MSU on behalf of Brooker, alleging that her First Amendment rights were compromised. The university settled the matter out of court. The settlement included clearing Brooker's academic record, waiving $12,000 in academic fees and paying her an additional $9,000. The professor involved was removed from classroom and administrative duties.

McGhee believes all students should be able to opt out of assignments that conflict with their religious convictions without worrying about administrative backlash.

Lipper, however, said the unintended consequence could mean a lawyer in every classroom and lead to litigation that would use taxpayers' money and tie up court resources.

In Columbia, School Board President Tom Rose said he has heard no concern among teachers that the amendment might allow students to skirt assignments, but he said he can see the potential for problems.

"I think the teachers are cognizant of what might be sensitive material," Rose said, "There are certain truths that can be taught in religion that don't hold up in the classroom."

“I’m not really certain what the underlying extra value will be," Rose said.

Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher acknowledged problems relating to religious displays and actions crop up from time to time but said there have never been any issues about children praying in local schools. The amendment sets out to solve a problem that doesn't exist, he said.

"Everything this bill is saying is already protected by the federal constitution," Belcher said.

The amendment also lists the restrictions against the state and the rights of political governing bodies. The state would be prohibited from establishing an official religion or coercing people into participating in prayers or invocations. At the same time, the General Assembly and other legislative bodies would be allowed to invite ministers, clergy and other religious authorities to offer prayers, blessings or invocations at meetings and sessions.

Lipper also wonders about the strategy of placing the amendment on the August primary ballot, when there usually is less turnout than in November general elections.

"It seems like proponents are trying to get this done under the radar," he said.

McGhee, however, said he's been trying to put the amendment on a public ballot for years and that it was Gov. Jay Nixon who signed a proclamation in May to place the amendment on Tuesday's ballot.

The amendment also would require all public schools to display the Bill of Rights. Neither Belcher nor Rose were certain if any Columbia schools do that now. Rose estimated there would be little expense in getting copies printed if the amendment passes.

McGhee said there would be no real way to enforce that provision and that the amendment doesn't provide for any consequences for those schools that fail to display the Bill of Rights.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.