Missouri State Rep. Chris Kelly (D-Columbia) has called Missouri’s deceptive “right to pray” amendment “a jobs bill for lawyers.” He may be all too correct.
Yesterday, Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2, which passed with 82 percent in favor and 17 percent against. The vote margin is not surprising given the misleading language that accompanied the measure on the ballot.
Many who voted for the amendment probably thought they were merely protecting the right of citizens to express their religious beliefs, guarantee the right of school children to pray and require public schools to display the Bill of Rights.
In reality, Amendment 2 is not so benign. It opens the door for coercive prayer and proselytizing in public schools, allows students to skip homework if it offends their religious beliefs and infringes on the religious liberty rights of prisoners.
The biggest problem with Amendment 2, however, is that it’s so open-ended nobody really knows exactly what it will do.
For example, one provision mandates that the state “shall ensure that any person shall have the right to pray individually or corporately in a private or public setting so long as such prayer does not result in disturbance of the peace or disruption of a public meeting or assembly.”
Does it mean that all governmental meetings will feature group invocations or benedictions? What if one person’s “right to pray” intrudes on another person’s right to abstain from praying or to pray according to the tenets of her own faith? And what constitutes a disturbance or disruption?
No one knows the answers to any of those questions. That’s where the lawyers come in.
It takes just one rogue public school teacher or misguided student who wants to test out the bounds of the new amendment to create a violation of church-state separation that must be challenged in court. Such a lawsuit could easily take years to sort out and cost Missouri taxpayers upward of $1 million.
“This is going to be a nightmare for school districts, which will end up getting sued by individuals on both sides of church-state debate,” Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “This is the most far-out constitutional amendment we've seen in the church-state area.”
But, of course, measure supporters don’t see it that way. They think they’re somehow “undoing” the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision barring government-mandated prayer.
“Religious liberty is pretty important to [Missourians] and a high priority,” Kerry Messer, president of the Missouri Family Network, said, according to the Kansas City Star. “The public feels like the Supreme Court took this away from them over 50 years ago [with a ruling against mandatory school prayer].”
Messer is absolutely wrong. While the Supreme Court did prohibit mandatory in-school prayer, it did not stop students from praying on their own during the school day provided they don’t disrupt the learning environment or infringe on the rights of others.
That’s just another example of why Amendment 2 was so unnecessary.
Even though the votes have been cast on Amendment 2, Americans United will continue to monitor the situation carefully and weigh our options. Just because we lost the battle of the ballot doesn’t mean we have to lose the war on this one.