New bill would guarantee ‘right to pray’

JEFFERSON CITY – The Missouri Legislature is at it again. Despite failed efforts the last two years to promote a public role for religion and even to declare the United States “a Christian nation,” conservative lawmakers are now trying to approve a constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to pray in any public setting, including public schools.

Similar proposals have passed the House in the past, but have always died quiet deaths in the Senate. The twist this year is the tack that supporters are taking. They have dropped arguments that the proposal would restore religious rights that have been curtailed by Supreme Court decisions.

Anat Cohen at The Sheldon

Instead, advocates have adopted the novel argument that the amendment is needed because it won’t change the law. Rather, supporters say, the proposal would simply re-affirm the religious freedom clause already in the state constitution.

The proposal’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Mike McGhee of Odessa, said it would clarify the law by emphasizing the rights of citizens and school children to pray and exercise their faith in public.

“I just want everyone to know that whatever their faith, this is their right,” McGhee said.

Jewish leaders in St. Louis questioned why such a measure is needed if even supporters acknowledge that it doesn’t change the law. Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and southern Illinois, described the proposal as another in a long line of measures designed to stir up support among fundamentalist Christian voters.

“People already know how to pray,” Aroesty said. “They know they have the right to pray and students can pray in school. They do it all the time, especially if they haven’t studied.”

Gerry Greiman, chairman of the church-state committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council, called the proposal another effort to promote organized prayer in public schools and to entangle government in religious matters.

Students already have the right to lead prayers, as long as it is done in a non-coercive manner, he said. And adults certainly have the right to express their faith and even to proselytize in public.

“These protections are already well established in the Missouri Constitution and existing case law, so these provisions are unnecessary,” Greiman said. “By pushing this proposal, it suggests to me that they are trying to go further than existing law.”

Greiman and Aroesty said they suspected that the proposal also is an attempt by Republican lawmakers to find an issue that will drive conservative Christian voters to the polls.

Because the proposal attempts to change the constitution, it would have to be approved by voters. If approved by both the House and Senate, the measure would appear on the November ballot.

The state constitution gives everyone “a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; that no human authority can control or interfere with the rights of conscience.”

McGhee’s proposal would add more than 300 words to that guarantee of religious freedom. The proposed wording would spell out that no one could infringe on a citizen’s right to pray or express religious beliefs.

It would require the state to ensure that anyone can participate in public, non-disruptive prayer and that elected officials and government employees can pray in public as an exercise in free speech. It also would allow public school students freedom of religious expression without interference as long as the expression was private, voluntary and not disruptive. McGhee said the changes were needed because he was told by a minister that students somewhere had been prohibited from carrying Bibles onto school buses. School children, he said, have gotten the impression that they cannot pray in the school lunchroom to thank God for their meal.

Rep. Jim Lembke, a Lemay Republican who is board chairman of Providence Christian Academy in St. Louis, said the wording would be a retort to people who have sought the removal of the Ten Commandments from public places.

“This will send a clear message to people who might want to mess with those rights to keep their hands off,” Lembke said.

Several Democrats scoffed at those reasons. Rep. Trent Skaggs, a North Kansas City Democrat, demanded to know where Bible-toting children had not been allowed to ride school buses. McGhee said he didn’t know the location.

In an effort to scuttle the measure, Skaggs suggested adding language that guaranteed citizens’ rights to “acknowledge the inerrancy of the Bible.”

The move created an awkward situation for many Republicans, who didn’t want to go on record as opposing the inerrancy of the Bible. They ultimately approved the language, but stripped it off with a later vote. The proposal, House Joint Resolution 55, was approved by the House, 132-11. In the Senate, it has been assigned to the Pensions and General Laws Committee, which has not set a hearing.

Aroesty said the public needed to send an emphatic message that legislators’ efforts to breach the separation between church and state were not welcome, particularly when major issues of public policy wait to be addressed.

“It is in the Senate’s interest to concentrate on substantive bills that affect the public interest,” Aroesty said. “We need them to work on bills that affect taxes, that affect health care — the things that hit people in their homes.”