MO to Vote On ‘Right to Pray’ Amendment

An amendment to the state constitution of Missouri that purports to support a “right to pray” in that state will be on the ballot in August, when the state holds their presidential primary. That amendment would almost certainly pass anyway, but the fact that it’s happening on a day when Republicans have far more reason to vote makes it all but impossible to stop.

The language of the bill is incredibly broad and is an engraved invitation to a whole bunch of lawsuits to test the parameters of the new law after it passes. Here’s what it says:

That all men and women have 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; that no person shall, on account of his or her religious persuasion or belief, be rendered ineligible to any public office or trust or profit in this state, be disqualified from testifying or serving as a juror, or be molested in his or her person or estate; that to secure a citizen’s right to acknowledge Almighty God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, neither the state nor any of its political subdivisions shall establish any official religion, nor shall a citizen’s right to pray or express his or her religious beliefs be infringed; that the state shall not coerce any person to participate in any prayer or other religious activity, but shall ensure that any person shall have the right to pray individually or corporately in a private or public setting so long as such prayer does not result in disturbance of the peace or disruption of a public meeting or assembly; that citizens as well as elected officials and employees of the state of Missouri and its political subdivisions shall have the right to pray on government premises and public property so long as such prayers abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances; that the General Assembly and the governing bodies of political subdivisions may extend to ministers, clergypersons, and other individuals the privilege to offer invocations or other prayers at meetings or sessions of the General Assembly or governing bodies; that students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work; that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs; that the state shall ensure public school students their right to free exercise of religious expression without interference, as long as such prayer or other expression is private and voluntary, whether individually or corporately, and in a manner that is not disruptive and as long as such prayers or expressions abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances; and, to emphasize the right to free exercise of religious expression, that all free public schools receiving state appropriations shall display, in a conspicuous and legible manner, the text of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States; but this section shall not be construed to expand the rights of prisoners in state or local custody beyond those afforded by the laws of the United States, excuse acts of licentiousness, nor to justify practices inconsistent with the good order, peace or safety of the state, or with the rights of others.

Much of this is simply redundant. Prayers to begin legislative sessions at the state and local level are already protected under Marsh v Chambers and the cases that modify it, as long as those prayers are “non-sectarian” (a meaningless distinction, but that is a matter for another post). Student prayer and expressions of religious belief are already protected in nearly all circumstances; there are thousands and thousands of Bible clubs and prayer groups that meet in schools all over the country, including Missouri.

The gray area in that regard involves commencement prayers, which brings in the question of a captive audience. In general, I don’t think the captive audience argument is very strong as long as it is clear that the person offering the religious expression is clearly speaking for themselves and not for the school (such as when a valedictorian is picked through an objective process and chooses to speak about being motivated by their religious faith or something similar). But the language here seems to be much broader, that it’s allowed as long as it is given “in a manner that is not disruptive.” That seems far too broad to me and invites inevitable attempts to make students sit through the religious rituals of others.

But the key problem, it seems to me, is in the part I put in bold print. Under that language, a student could likely claim that they don’t have to learn about a subject if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. That would most obviously show up in a biology class teaching about evolution, but that’s hardly the limit of it. There are lots and lots of people who reject, for religious reasons, a huge range of things taught in school — big bang cosmology, heliocentrism, even many things taught in American and world history. Giving students the means of just not learning things that might conflict with their religion is clearly a very bad idea.

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