The Joplin Globe
Supporters say it’s “one of the most important pieces of legislation because it is fundamental to protecting the rights of Missourians to pray and express their faith and to protect them from being coerced or compelled in a way that would violate their faith.”
Opponents say Proposition 2, as it will be labeled on the Aug. 7 ballot, “doesn’t give us one iota of additional protection, it simply restates the status quo.”
Dubbed the Missouri Public Prayer Amendment, the proposal also would require all public schools in the state to display the Bill of Rights.
Sponsored by State Rep. Mike McGhee, R-Odessa, the constitutional amendment would guarantee the freedoms to express religious beliefs and for children voluntarily to be able to acknowledge God and pray at school.
Opponents say it isn’t necessary because faith can be freely practiced in Missouri now and it “would do more harm than good” in schools because it does not specify what constitutes a religious belief.
Ryan Hobart, communications director for the secretary of state’s office, said adding the question to the ballot will cost taxpayers roughly $225,000. A “yes” vote will amend the Missouri Constitution to provide that neither the state nor political subdivisions shall establish any official religion.
“The amendment further provides that a citizen’s right to express their beliefs, regardless of religion, shall not be infringed and the right to worship includes prayer in private or public settings, on government premises, on public property and in all public schools,” according to a statement from the secretary of state’s office.
A “no” vote “will not change the current constitutional provisions protecting the freedom of religion,” according to the state office.
The Joplin Globe asked education administrators if passage of the amendment would change the way prayer is handled in public schools.
Ron Lankford, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and a former longtime Webb City superintendent, said schools have the same rights now as those proposed through the Missouri Public Prayer Amendment.
“That right is already protected for students,” Lankford said.
C.J. Huff, superintendent of the Joplin School District, said he was struck as he read the ballot language that all it does is align the state constitution with what is already practiced in school.
“If it passes, it isn’t really going to make a difference in our schools. Students already have rights for volunteer prayer in school. It happens. I think the misperception is that it (prayer) doesn’t happen (in schools),” he said.
Phil Cook, superintendent of the Carl Junction School District, said students can already pray in school and acknowledge “God, Jesus or any religion.”
“Posting the Bill of Rights is fine with me,” Cook said. “I’ve never heard of an issue where you couldn’t display the Bill of Rights. We have them in our history classes. We’d be more than happy to do that
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Missouri opposed the ballot question in a lawsuit filed in 2011, after it passed the Legislature in April of that year, saying the ballot summary “is misleading because it does not mention that students could use the proposed amendment to avoid homework assignments.”
The ACLU also claimed the amendment “would remove any state constitutional protection of religious expression or liberty for prisoners in state or local custody.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a United Methodist Church minister who is a spiritual adviser to inmates in the Missouri Department of Corrections and an associate professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Earlier this year, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Joyce, of Jefferson City, ruled to allow the amendment to stay on the ballot. That decision was appealed and in June, according to Associated Press reports, the ballot summary was upheld.
The proposed change to the state constitution asserts the right to pray in public places as long as it doesn’t disturb the peace. It also says students can express their religious beliefs and can’t be compelled to participate in assignments that violate those beliefs.
McGhee, the legislator, said Missouri is the first state in the nation to place the measure on the ballot. Passage requires a simple majority.