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Missouri 'right-to-pray' amendment spurs debate

When Missouri voters cast ballots on the so-called “right-to-pray” amendment to the state’s constitution, they’ll be deciding whether students should be able to opt out of school assignments that they think run counter to their religious beliefs.

Yet that’s not spelled out on the Aug. 7 ballot.

To its supporters, the amendment enumerates rights already in the U.S. and Missouri constitutions and forces government and public schools to respect religious liberty.

To its critics, the amendment poses a problematic fix for something that isn’t broken, and ultimately could open school curricula to theological negotiation.

Both sides agree the final say probably will be made by the courts.

Last year, lawmakers approved a proposed change to Missouri’s constitution they said was aimed at prohibiting government or school officials from adopting policies to prevent prayer in public places, as long as the prayer does not result in disturbance of the peace or disruption of a public meeting or assembly.

The summary that will appear on the ballot asks voters whether the 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.

The summary goes on to say a “no” vote will not change the current constitutional provisions protecting freedom of religion.

Supporters and critics agree that the right to pray in public is already enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and the Missouri Constitution. But state Rep. Mike McGhee, an Odessa Republican who sponsored the amendment for five years, said many people are unaware of their rights.

“We’re just trying to get the word out,” McGhee said. “You have the right to pray at a city council meeting, a football game or a school board meeting as long as you don’t disturb anyone else.”

Left out of the summary that will appear on the ballot, however, is a provision that says no student “shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.”

Susan German, president of the Science Teachers of Missouri, said the amendment could have a major impact on the teaching of certain topics in classrooms around the state.

“It is evident that some of the major areas of concern include teaching the age of the Earth, evolution, or climate change in the science classrooms,” German said in a letter to the organization’s 450 members. “While this may not be a direct attack, it certainly opens the door.”

German said her organization has not taken a formal position on the amendment, but it is urging its members to go beyond the summary to fully understand potential ramifications.

“You can’t put the entire amendment in the summary, but letting students opt out of assignments is a pretty big change,” said Anthony Rothert, the legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “I don’t know if voters will know that this is what they are voting for.”

McGhee said his intent wasn’t to allow students to opt out of a class on evolution, but rather to give students the opportunity to refuse to take a class “on Buddha or on Islam, or for a Muslim kid to be able to say he won’t take a class on Christianity if he feels it contradicts his faith. I want to make sure a student knows he can bring his Bible to study hall if he chooses.”

If the curriculum of a school results in conflicts with the constitutional amendment, McGhee said, “why not just change the curriculum so that it will be pleasing to all the students?”

Kerry Messer, president of the Missouri Family Network, dismissed concerns that the amendment would have dramatic impacts on lesson plans.

“Will somebody try to opt out of a class over something like evolution? Probably so,” he said. “But I don’t see the courts applying the amendment that way at all. This is only about religious liberty. If a Christian student is told they must kneel and bow east in a mock Islamic prayer to sensitize students to the Muslim community, that student can refuse to participate.”

Gregory Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the measure’s language is so broad no one knows for sure what its impact might be.

“In trying to solve a made-up problem, this amendment generates a flood of legalese,” he said. “It adds more fine print to the Missouri Constitution than you’d find in the typical apartment lease.”

The only thing that’s certain, Lipper said, is that the amendment will result in a “flood of long and costly lawsuits” at taxpayers’ expense.

Messer, however, said he doesn’t expect a significant change in the number of lawsuits, but rather a change in the way a governing body makes decisions. He contends that instead of being solely motivated by the fear of being sued for allowing religious observances in schools or other public venues, now government officials will have to contend with the threat of a lawsuit if they curtail those activities.

“This amendment,” Messer said, “turns the tables.”

If the amendment passes and problems arise, the legislature can always go back and make corrections, said McGhee, who is running for the state Senate. But because the measure is an amendment to the state constitution, any proposed changes that clear both the House and Senate would have to once again be placed on the ballot for voters to ultimately decide.

North Dakota voters in June overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment to that state’s constitution aimed at preventing government officials from implementing laws that could be considered an obstruction of the exercise of religion.

In Missouri, however, even those opposing the prayer amendment concede it is likely to pass.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this passes overwhelmingly,” said Rothert of the ACLU. “If you just read the summary it seems like a real moderate proposal. The real action will come down the road, when lawsuits are filed by students trying to opt out of assignments.”