Jul 11, 2011

The people of Missouri deserve better.

Not only has the state’s legislature passed a measure that could open the door to government-promoted religion – it plans to deliberately mislead Missourians about it.

H.J.R. 2 will appear on the November 2012 ballot. It’s an amendment that will add language to the state’s constitution codifying the right of Missourians to express their religious beliefs in public places, including public schools.

Obviously, that is something that all Americans already have the general right to do under the U.S. Constitution. Most Missourians will likely approve the language, thinking it’s no big deal.

That’s what the state legislature and the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Mike McGee (R-Odessa), want everyone to think. But that would be wrong.

The amendment’s language is very broad, and it seems intended to open the door to preaching and proselytizing in public schools and other venues with a captive audience. It mandates, for example, that “citizens as well as elected officials and employees of the state of Missouri and its political subdivisions shall have the right to pray on government premises and public property.” Does that mean teachers and school administrators will have the “right” to lead their students in worship?

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.” Does that mean students can stand up in class and give a “report” that proselytizes for their faith and demeans the beliefs of others?

Another section mandates that “no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.” Does that mean students can opt out of science class because learning about evolution “violates” their religious beliefs?

Yet none of these details are spelled out in the proposed ballot measure. All Missourians will read is that the amendment promises more religious liberty.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last week challenging the misleading language. Hopefully, the litigation will result in the state at least describing the true effect of this amendment so Missourians will know what they are signing up for.

Americans United has already warned about the dangers of this amendment and urged Missouri legislators not to approve it.

In March, we wrote a letter to the Missouri Senate making it clear that, if approved, this measure will likely lead to more constitutional violations and lawsuits.

This amendment would substantially change the state’s existing guarantee of religious liberty,” the letter asserted. “Because courts are obligated to give every word meaning when interpreting the Constitution, they will likely view the additional lengthy exposition of what the free exercise means as granting different rights than those currently guaranteed by the Constitution — and rights that even go beyond the stated intent of the resolution.”

This measure isn’t about religious freedom but is rather just another way for our legislators to cross the church-state line.