Jail time for praying and singing.
That is the possible sentence facing 23 people, many of them among the most esteemed clergy in the metro area. Jury selection in a Cole County, Mo., courtroom began Monday. A $500 fine and up to six months in jail is what the defendants face.
Technically, it was for a disruption in May 2014 at the state Capitol in Jefferson City. Obstructing government operations and first-degree trespassing are the two misdemeanor charges each received. That sounds more dire than what their singing and chanting really involved.
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The clergy members and others stood in the gallery area above senators as that session neared its final days. About 300 people participated in the civil disobedience, but the 23 charged were the most adamant. The Senate had stalled on expanding Medicaid eligibility limits so that more Missourians could receive coverage.
So the protesters chanted slogans in unison and sang civil rights songs and gospel hymns. They refused to stop. Capitol police had to escort the protesters one by one from the gallery. It was peaceful — no handcuffs, no big fuss.
But the action was a final stand that legislative session, literally, for what’s right. The pastors and other activists were among many voices who had spent months pressing some holdouts to at least honestly address the issue of Medicaid. But they wouldn’t. The stalling wasn’t about the substance of the issue. It was partisan. Expanding Medicaid is a key component of the Affordable Care Act. And those senators didn’t want to approve anything that could later be a credit to the Obama administration.
Even if it means that low-income Missourians could die because they do not access care. The refusal to accept federal dollars to expand limits has kept an estimated 300,000 Missourians from affordable care. By some estimates, between 200 and 700 Missourians could die as a result of not expanding the eligibility limits, according to Project Hope: The People-to-People Health Foundation.
Not all Republicans were so obstinate about the clergy’s pleas. Missouri House Rep. Jay Barnes, a Republican from Jefferson City, is one of the attorneys representing the protesters. The other is Nimrod Chapel Jr., president of the Missouri NAACP.
All but one of those charged were present in the Cole County circuit courtroom Monday. They packed into a defendant’s box, some wearing clerical collars and their ecumenical stoles, listening during the jury selection.
The clergy stood for what is right. They put action to the values and morals that lead their ministries. They are dubbed the “Medicaid 23,” a fitting name that harkens back to civil rights protests of a different era. Affordable health care is a human right. It’s just a pity that they now must spend this time and waste taxpayer dollars going through a trial.
Among them is the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield, the pastor emeritus of the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, a luminary of African-American clergy circles.
Other prominent figures in the group are the Rev. Lloyd Fields of Greater Gilgal Missionary Baptist Church; the Rev. Susan McCann of Grace Episcopal Church in Liberty; the Rev. Tony Johnson of First Baptist Church in Liberty; the Rev. Sam Mann, retired pastor of St. Mark Union Church; the Rev. Tex Sample, of St. Paul School of Theology; and Vernon Howard, Jr., senior pastor at St. Mark Union Church and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.
A real question is whether a fair trial can be had for the group, given that the trial is expected to be concluded by midweek. Each person’s role that day in 2014 must be fairly weighed as each faces the same two charges.
Their action was a civil disobedience for a greater good. They had a designated purpose and had tried other avenues to reach the holdout legislators, to no avail. They took action without causing damage or violence to others. They merely made their presence, their mission, known.
Fittingly, Monday began with prayer for the group. How the trial ends, if the legislature ever steps up to fully answer the needs of low-income Missourians, remains to be seen.