Soon Missourians will take to the polls to decide the fate of a new amendment to the state’s constitution that would, at first blush, do nothing.
Surely I jest. Let’s look, with a little help from BallotPedia. The measure would ensure…
- That the right of Missouri citizens to express their religious beliefs shall not be infringed;
Well, that’s already in the U.S. Constitution, it’s a basic right of all Americans, so no big deal there…
- That school children have the right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools;
While there’s a prohibition from prayers being coerced or directed by school officials and teachers and the like, no one can stop a student from praying or giving the Big Imaginary Guy a shout-out on their own, so once again, no harm no foul…
- That all public schools shall display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.
Well, if they must. It’s a handy thing to have around, you know, for reference.
Good then! A pointless ballot measure intended merely to get some excited conservatives to the polls. Vote for it, don’t vote for it, whatever. It won’t matter.
It can’t be a ploy to get the religious vote out to the polls on Election Day, because it’s going to be voted on August 7, not in November. But if it’s so benign, so redundant, and not intended to drive turnout, what’s the point?
You see, there’s more to this measure than meets the eye. And I mean that literally, because what will not meet the eye of the voters is the full description of what the rest of the proposed amendment would do.
For one (emphasis mine):
. . . 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
This feels to me like a middle finger to groups like FFRF and American Atheists who regularly challenge this practice. I’m sure it already happens in Missouri all the time, but here they are trying to codify it in their constitution, though I would imagine that it’s still not going to square with the U.S. Constitution.
. . . 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.
The ACLU declared back in 2011 that this section was an overt attempt to limit the free exercise of religion for prisoners, which I didn’t quite see at first, though I got that it’s at the very least unsettling in how it goes out of its way to single out the incarcerated as not being invited to enjoy these new-but-not-new rights. But of course, then you realize what’s really at the meat of this, and it all falls together (emphasis mine):
. . . 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;
In other words, students may essentially opt out of their education if it contradicts the Bronze Age nonsense they’ve been told to believe at home and at church. A student could theoretically claim adherence to Genesis in biology class, and not suffer academically for turning their nose up the course’s assignments, lessons, and readings.
This is a great way to make sure your state is as irrelevant as possible in the information economy.
I’m also troubled by the first part of the quoted paragraph, not because I’m all about religious discrimination, but it sure smells fishy to me in that I expect this language is there to make sure that for a project on, say, geology, a student could insist that the Earth is 6000 years old, and not receive a failing grade because, hey, that’d be discrimination.
And now we can tie this all back to the prisoners. The authors of the amendment want to make sure that students can opt out of anything that conflicts with their religion, but they don’t want his language to be construed as offering this same right to those in prison. The last thing they want is for a Muslim (or an atheist, even) to be able to claim that something required of him while incarcerated is in conflict with his beliefs. That’s just for the Christians.
And just so we’re clear, none of this stuff — about the prisoners, the clergy at public meetings, or the students skirting science education — is going to appear in the summary on the ballot on which people will actually vote. Almost no one actually deciding this question will see any of this.
It’s telling that even the amendment’s supporters don’t really know how to explain it. Here’s Missouri State Senator Jim Lembke making an attempt:
I think what this does is it tries to protect those rights that are already secure but now that we have challenges over the decades and over 231 years in the courts challenging our religious freedom I think it’s better for the states if we do make it clear that you have these freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and that we spell it out.
There was a sentence in there somewhere, I’m sure.
(Thanks to Brian for the tip.)