Prayer in, motorcycle helmets out


In an extraordinarily productive week, the Missouri House approved measures that would expand gun rights, let motorcyclists ride without a helmet and require all gasoline to contain 10 percent corn products.

But the issue that may have created the most angst during an election year was a proposed constitutional amendment that would emphasize the right to pray in public places. The measure was approved by the House, even though both sides acknowledge that people already have that right.

The proposal’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Carl Bearden of St. Charles, said the measure would clarify that Missourians have the right “to gather, to pray and engage in religious expression.”

“Faith,” he said, “is constantly under attack.”

Critics complained that the proposal, which would appear on the November ballot, was nothing more than a political gesture by Republicans seeking an issue that would drive conservative Christians to the polls. They complained that putting the measure on the ballot would cost the state more than $50,000.

Rep. Margaret Donnelly, a Richmond Heights Democrat, called the proposal “political pandering at its finest.”

“Wasting taxpayers’ money and taking up House time for political reasons is morally wrong,” Donnelly said.

The state Constitution already says that Missourians “have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences.” The proposal would add a section prohibiting state or local government from establishing an official religion, “but a citizen’s right to pray or to express his or her religious belief shall not be infringed.”

The state won’t compose prayers or coerce anyone to participate in religious activity, “but shall ensure public school students their right to free exercise of religious expression without interference,” the proposal says.

The proposal goes on to say that such prayer must be private and voluntary and not disruptive of other policies or standards. To emphasize the right to free exercise of religion, all public schools would be required to display the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

House Speaker Rod Jetton, a Marble Hill Republican, conceded that such rights were already protected by the state and federal constitutions. But many people don’t realize it, he said. He told about attending a school event that included a meal with his third-grade daughter.

As the family bowed their heads to thank God for their food, his daughter interrupted, saying they couldn’t pray in school. That is wrong, Jetton said.

“We want people to know that we have the freedom that whether it’s before a test or before chow, it’s OK to pray,” Jetton said.

But Rep. Barbara Fraser, a University City Democrat, said the proposal was unnecessary and seemed aimed at violating the First Amendment’s guarantee that government would be kept separate from religion. The founding fathers “understood the abuses that could occur when political leaders decide what religious expression is appropriate,” Fraser said.

In the end, the measure was approved 134-19. It still must be approved by the Senate.

House Bill 994: Motorcycle helmets

The House also approved a bill that would allow motorcyclists 21 and older to feel wind in their hair and bugs in their teeth.

Rep. Gary Dusenberg, the Blue Springs Republican who sponsored legislation to allow adults 21 and older to ride without helmets, said it was a simple matter of freedom. The state allows people 18 and older to vote and serve in the military. It ought to allow people over 21 to ride without a helmet, he said.

Critics, including Democratic Rep. Paul LeVota of Independence, said dropping the helmet requirement would increase the number of head injuries, which taxpayers will end up paying for.

“Some people have asked why we want to protect the brain of someone who is so stupid they don’t wear a helmet,” LeVota said. “It will cost us money because people will suffer more significant injuries.”

Rep. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican who is a family doctor, suggested that riders should be required to wear eye protection because hitting an insect at high speeds could damage a person’s vision. But that proposal was easily defeated.

The House dismissed the criticisms and approved the bill, 95-59. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Senate Bill 1189: Holocaust Commission

Legislation that would create the Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission got a boost recently when House Majority Leader Tom Dempsey of St. Charles signed on to guide the bill through the House.

The bill sailed through the Senate, passing 30-1. Supporters touted the commission as a way to foster understanding between people of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds while also preserving the memory of six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust that engulfed Europe from 1933 to 1945.

The only dissenting vote came from Sen. Frank Barnitz, a Lake Spring Democrat. Barnitz said he didn’t disagree with the concept of a Holocaust Commission. But he thought its purpose should be to spread awareness of current ethnic hatreds in Iraq and other parts of the world as well as problems in previous generations.

He said he also opposed the bill because it allows the Holocaust Commission to hire an executive director rather than have the commission administered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“The conservative in me sees it as another expansion of a government program and the ability to put someone to work,” Barnitz said. “If we fund our libraries to the level we should, then they, too, can bring awareness of bigotry and hatred throughout history and can include the present situations.”

The bill has been assigned to the House Veterans Committee, headed by Republican Rep. Jack Jackson of Wildwood.

Kit Wagar is the statehouse correspondent for the Kansas City Star. He can be reached at 816-234-4440 or by sending e-mail to [email protected].