Legal wrangling begins over Missouri's prayer amendment

Published: Thursday, Aug. 9 2012 5:04 p.m. MDT

Dubbed "Amendment 2," the change to the Missouri state constitution would affirm the rights of citizens to express their religious beliefs and the rights of children to pray and acknowledge God in schools.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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MISSOURI — The "right to pray" amendment to Missouri's constitution was expected to pass — and it did, capturing an overwhelming 83 percent of the vote on Tuesday. Also expected was a quick trip to court after passage — and that happened Wednesday.

Dubbed "Amendment 2," the change to the state constitution would affirm the rights of citizens to express their religious beliefs and the rights of children to pray and acknowledge God in schools. It would also allow students to be exempted from classroom activities that violate their religious beliefs.

But a provision not mentioned in the ballot summary, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, states prison inmates' religious rights will be limited to federal law.

And that created an opening for the American Civil Liberties Union to file suit alleging the amendment violates inmates' 14th Amendment's equal protection clause and the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom, because the Missouri Constitution provides more protections of religious liberty than the U.S. Constitution.

“Think of the U.S. Constitution, which provides basic religious rights, as a cake, and the Missouri Constitution, which provided additional religious liberties, as the icing,” said ACLU-Eeastern Missouri legal director Tony Rothert in a statement. “The newly passed Amendment 2 will strip the icing off that cake for prisoners, and doing so perpetuates the stereotype that prisoners are inferior and less worthy of the protection of their right to prayer under the Missouri Constitution.”

It likely won't be the only lawsuit filed over the amendment that one lawmaker called a "jobs bill for lawyers."

"There will probably be many lawsuits," Rothert told the Associated Press. "This is just one very narrow challenge of one small part of this amendment. There are multiple ways that the amendment is susceptible to legal challenge."

There was no comment Thursday afternoon on the lawsuit from the state or backers of the amendment.

State Rep. Mike McGhee, a Republican who sponsored the amendment, told the Religion News Service before Tuesday's vote that the amendment would remind people about their religious freedoms, such as reading religious books at school.

"It's OK to bring your Bible to study hall," he said.

The amendment was backed by Missouri's four Catholic bishops and the Missouri Baptist Convention.

Missouri voters believe “religious liberty is pretty important to them and a high priority,” Kerry Messer, president of the Missouri Family Network, told the Kansas City Star. “The public feels like the Supreme Court took this away from them over 50 years ago” with a ruling against mandatory school prayer.

He was referring to the court's 1962 ruling that found a state-composed prayer to be read in New York schools violated the Constitution's establishment clause. Legal scholars say the ruling has been over-interpreted by both sides of the religious culture war to ban all prayer and discussion of religion in public schools.

In addition to protecting voluntary prayer in public school and exempting inmates from the state constitutional protections of religious liberty, the Missouri amendment:

• Ensures the right to pray individually or in groups in private or public places, as long as the prayer does not disturb the peace or disrupt a meeting;

• Prohibits the state from coercing religious activity;

• Protects the right to pray on government property;

• Protects the right of legislative bodies to sponsor prayers and invocations; and

• Says students need not take part in assignments or presentations that violate their religious beliefs.

That last provision has opponents saying the change gives students license to skip classes that address issues that go against their religious beliefs, or impact how topics such as the age of the earth, climate change and evolution are taught in schools.

"Providing all students a right to refrain from school assignments and presentations that violate their religious beliefs is a truly profound change in educational law," the ACLU said in a separate statement. "Providing this exemption will cause untold mischief in both public and parochial schools and will adversely affect the quality of education in Missouri."

The Hannibal Courrier-Post asked the local school superintendent what she anticipates under the new amendment, which could take effect in early September barring a court injunction.

“We will learn how to abide by the amendment,” said superintendent Jill Janes. “Once we read the law and figure out the exact wording we will abide by what it says.”

She expects no problems. “I think it goes back to common sense,” Janes said. “I think people in this community have a lot of common sense and will use that wisely."

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