How HB278 became Missouri law

Jill Schupp

By Jill Schupp

House Bill 278, which became Missouri law on Oct. 11, says “no state or local governmental entity, building, public park, public school, or public setting or place shall ban or otherwise restrict the practice, mention, celebration, or discussion of any federal holiday.”

Earlier this summer Governor Jay Nixon vetoed 29 separate bills passed by the legislature. If you read many of these bills, it becomes clear that our legislature is being led by extremists.  When coupled with a lack of transparency and experience in setting public policy, the inevitable resulted is poorly crafted, ill-conceived and truly damaging legislation.  

Last week, Light editor Ellen Futterman called me as HB 278 was becoming law.  She asked why this bill passed and who dropped the ball.  It is a reasonable question with a nuanced answer.  

 This 32-word bill was not unique to this session.  The first time I heard it, I got up on the floor and called it out for what it was: the Christmas bill. Why do I believe it is all about Christmas? Because Christmas is the only federal holiday that is specifically religious in nature and therefore subject to court challenge if its symbols are exhibited in public places. 

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Remember the manufactured public outrage over people using greetings like “happy holidays?” This bill was a response to that perceived threat among a small group of Missouri’s Christian population.    

 The bill turns Supreme Court precedent on its head. It disallows any public entity’s ability to block Christmas symbols from being displayed in public places supported by taxpayer dollars.  I am not Christian and I pay taxes, too. I depend upon our legislators to uphold the Missouri and U.S. Constitutions. In more than one way, this session was defined by support for unconstitutional bills. Yet, lawmakers each take an oath of office to uphold those Constitutions.

 So what happened this time?  As those of us in the minority party prepared for the veto session, we had no indication, except through speculation and rumor, about which, whether any or even all bills would be overridden.  As a caucus, we had to prepare for the possibility that the veto of each of those 29 bills would be challenged. 

 We took on assignments. I agreed to speak in favor of the Governor’s veto of the tax bill (HB 253) and the gun law nullification bill (HB 436).  However, it is never clear whether the minority party will be given an opportunity to voice an opinion on any given bill. 

 Prior to the veto session debate was ended early 266 times in the Missouri House, which squelches dissent. The maneuver is called “PQ,” which stands for “previous question” and which immediately ends debate. It is unconscionable. It is the antithesis of good government.  And, of late, it happens with great frequency. 

As a Jew and a legislator who has seen the bill providing unfettered celebration of all federal holidays in public places for more than one session, I was disappointed to see this bill move forward for override.  I believed it to be more about posturing than policy. And, I noted with confidence that on the minority side, sustaining the Governor’s veto was being addressed by one of our finest legislators, Rep. Stephen Webber from Columbia. 

Webber would focus on Independence Day and the inability of a community to provide a temporary stay on fireworks in areas where drought might create a public safety issue should this bill become law.  It was also the argument the Governor used in his veto message.  

For a Jew to get up and talk about this as a Christmas bill in this legislative environment would appear self-serving, I speculated.  By highlighting the public safety ramifications of this bill,  Webber’s appeal provided good rationale to sustain the Governor’s veto.  Sadly the majority overrode the Governor’s veto.

I believe the override had less to do with policy than with the desire of the majority party to claim victory by overriding 10 of the Governor’s 29 vetoes. 

As a legislator I must make pragmatic decisions. I had very good advice about the unconstitutionality of this bill, and believe it will ultimately be overturned through the legal system. I believe there was very little chance to change the outcome given the strong majority it received. I did, however, see opportunity to prevent the tax bill and the gun nullification bill from becoming law, each of which would have devastating consequences.

Calling a bill unconstitutional is easy.  However, it takes time, money, research and someone to claim actual damages for a court challenge to go forward.  Allowing an unconstitutional bill to pass does not get resolved in as simple a way as just sending it to the Supreme Court for review.  The battle looms large.  

The way to address the perennial “holiday” issue is to build a broad coalition representing the entire spectrum of religious beliefs in Missouri that shows understanding, openness and a respect for a variety of beliefs. Such a coalition should drive public dialogue about religious observance, and the distinction between church and state set out in our founding documents.

 I live my life with gratitude and hopefulness that such a dialogue is possible. I would like you to join me.