Missouri Right-to-Pray Amendment Has a (Literally) Hidden Purpose

Let's dirty this up a bit, shall we?

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.

But wait.

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.

There’s more!

. . . 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;

Ah.

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.)

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jadelackey Jade Lackey

    They are getting better at hiding their true intentions. Oh my people might have to read what they are voting on………………NEVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!(in a demeaning tone)

    • reishi

      Wait…that can’t be legal, can it…?

      • ErickaMJohnson

         No, it’s blatantly unconstitutional. That’s why they’re tucking it away. We should be able to impeach legislator who put up these kinds of bills because they’re braking their oath to uphold the Constitution.

        • reishi

          I meant the tucking-it-away part had to be illegal, I should have been more clear. 

          • LawnBoy

            The ACLU sued on the grounds that the ballot text was deceptive. Unfortunately (and unbelievably to me), a judge disagreed.

            • eean

              The Missouri constitution sucks, I don’t find it at all unbelievable that it would allow misleading ballot items.

              The Missouri constitution even has an amendment where it itself goes up for an up-or-down referendum every 10 years. So it’s also self-loathing, or at least has somewhat of a confidence crisis.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001627228091 Alexander Ryan

      Considering how many people read the terms of service on everything before clicking the ‘I agree’ box, we’re probably screwed…

      • Stev84

        That’s exactly how people treat the Bible. They open the last page and click “I agree” in their heads

    • Tom

      I sometimes wonder if one should be required to pass a basic reading comprehension test on an issue before being allowed to vote on it.  But, then, who would administer the test, and could you ever stop them abusing that position?

      • amycas

         Those kinds of tests were made illegal by the, afaik, civil rights act of 1968; mainly because they have a disproportionate affect on minorities. Literacy tests were part of the tool-kit used in Jim Crow laws to keep blacks from voting, along with poll taxes.

    • eean

      Of course people won’t read the full laws that they vote on. It’s ridiculous that you are having such a sarcastic tone about it. It does seem reasonable that the summaries provided on the ballots should state what is being voted on.

      You could make a good case that it’s stupid to pass laws in this fashion and we should do away with referendums entirely. But it’s silly to think people should all become legal experts and read the full text of all laws that they vote on.

  • bruce boryla

    “I think what this does is it tries to protect those rights that are already secure …

    Yeah, because secured rights need protecting.  This guy must work for the Department of Redundancy Division.

  • Baby_Raptor

    It’s amazing how far these people will go to keep from hearing something that may make them think. 

    Kids will just use this to worm out of projects. It won’t protect anyones’ non-existent right to not hear anything contradictory to their fragile beliefs. 

  • http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/ Ed Darrell

    “Algebra” is an Arabic word, a method developed by Muslims.  Can a student find that religiously objectionable?  If so, can they be exempted from state tests that have algebra problems?  

  • http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/ Ed Darrell

    There was that case — 6th Circuit? — Dickson v. Settle.  Young woman complained when teacher rejected her biography of Jesus.  Assignment was to do a biography of someone heroic who the student knew almost nothing about, using at least three different sources.  Student confessed that she knew a lot about Jesus, ‘her favorite person,’ and the New Testament was the sole source.  Wisely, perhaps, her lawyers framed it as a free speech case, and not a free exercise of religion case. 

    The court ruled that students can’t hide behind religion to avoid homework, or classwork.

    Missouri’s proposed amendment overturns that decision, in Missouri, doesn’t it?  Is Missouri in the same federal circuit?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=625734930 Michael Shay

       No.  Missouri is in the Eighth Circuit.

      • amycas

        If its brought up in the Eighth Circuit, then can still point to that precedent, and it could still help their case.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    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. 

     This dedicated, activist, diligent ignorance and strong anti-educational sentiment is why the U.S. has gone from being the leading country  in science and math to 31st in science and 23rd in math.  http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/09/opinion/bennett-stem-education/index.html  We are rapidly becoming a huge has-been country. An enormous Portugal, or Greece, or Egypt.

  • http://drashizu.livejournal.com/ Sarah

    I have no objections to people who want to ignore the wealth of modern scientific  knowledge that even a public high-school teacher can offer them in favor of adhering to whatever religious beliefs they hold. But as someone who very recently graduated from the California public school system after spending more than half my life in it, I strongly, strongly object to the idea that a student who makes that choice will still receive a passing grade.

    If I get an A for a report about the millions of years of pressure that sedimentary rock such as limestone had to undergo to become a metamorphic rock like marble, and another student gets an A for a report about how the Grand Canyon was carved out by Noah’s Flood, that’s academic dishonesty. That student did not learn the material that was being presented in the class. That student did not demonstrate the ability to do scholarly research. That student did not write the paper that the instructor assigned for a specific reason to address specific learning goals, and that student’s A is not the same as mine, and should not be worth the same in grade-point average or college prep credit as mine.

    • amycas

       The way I see it, if a student does a report about how the Grand Canyon was carved out by Noah’s Flood, then I would grade it based purely on its scientific merit. Just go through the whole thing and show where their assumptions or data were wrong. If they then claim its a religious belief and opt out, then just don’t give them a grade. If they opt out of everything, then they can’t get any credit for the class because they did no work. I wouldn’t really see any other way to deal with this, as a teacher, without just allowing religious students to pass classes in which they did none of the work.

    • http://twitter.com/CrunchyConMom Crunchy Con Mommy

      It’d be pretty easy for a teacher to word an assignment to say something like “Explain how the Grand Canyon was formed according to “Geology and You: 8th Edition”. Doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, just matters if you understood the theory. This law may still be a bad idea-I’m thinking about it-but this particular objection doesn’t seem compelling to me.

  • http://twitter.com/Buffy2q Buffy

    Religious people being deceptive to push an agenda?  Tell me it isn’t so!

  • Harmony Alexandria

     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.
    ———————————————————————————————————–
    That’s perfectly fine as university admissions officers are going to be bitchslapping those bible-believing nobodys back to the cesspool that is Missouri….Problem solved

    • StrangeLittleMan

       You know, I really get tired of all Missourians being lumped together into one big “cesspool” as you so eloquently put it. There are bible thumping, close-minded people in every state, but that doesn’t mean those people represent an entire group.

      • matt

         Thanks from another Missourian.  I don’t thump bibles either.

  • Aaron Scoggin

    That’s a pretty messed up thing. So any student could claim the Bible as proof that the earth is 6000 years old, that we were made from nothing, and women were made from men’s rib bone. 

    Though, if I were that teacher that just received a paper that took its “evidence” from the Bible, I would probably have to give them an alternate assignment that wouldn’t be affected by their religious views. Ain’t no way I’d give an A for a paper that said, “Ain’t no dinosarz cuz no dinosarz in the Bible.”

  • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

    And the dumbing down of America continues….

  • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou

    Lol, and slowly the defense of Christian rights turns into an establishment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=628665833 Bill Santagata

    This is why state constitutions are absolute messes of documents, full of unnecessary and defunct passages. The Constitution of California is hundreds of pages long! Agree or disagree with the amendment, this does *not* need to be a constitutional amendment. The State of Missouri could have just passed this as a regular law.

    I think you could also make the argument that requiring an Evangelical student to do an assignment on evolution doesn’t violate his religious liberty. Simply requiring a student to be familiar with the scientific explanation for the origin of the species isn’t the same as requiring a student to believe it. Of course there will be tons of lawsuits over it. That’s all this amendment will do…create lawsuits.

    • eean

      Yes. Amending the constitution should be a big deal! Iowa sets a good high bar, it takes two different legislatures and then there’s a referendum. So actually voters get to vote twice on it if it’s a big deal, first for the second legislature and then on the referendum itself.

      Or just not have a constitution. It works for Britain, it might even work for a state.

      But constitutions like Missouri’s are just a mess.

      • Oberonsz

        Did you really just say not have a constitution? It works for Britain? I guess it would have worked out fine for Britain if we never had a constitution.

  • brain

    Matthew 6:5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

  • Ballpoint Penguin

    “The eighty percent of Romans who believe in Caesar’s divinity should tell the other twenty percent to sit down and shut up.” – recently discovered graffito found on the Colosseum.

    Actually, not really – but the idea still holds. Christians should remember that they weren’t a majority for all their existence – as tales of various saints show (rather messily in the case of Saint Lawrence, who was roasted alive on a man-sized grill and had his last words recorded as “Turn me over – this side is done!”).

    Some need to remember that when religious power is converted to political power, the message of the religion can get badly garbled.

  • Chuck

    A referendum SUMMARY can only be so long. Its common for most bills that to get the whole story you have to read more than the ballot.

    Districts often already have policies regarding religious abstainment form an assignment, so this will do more to force teachers to follow their own districts’ policies than to change the actual game.

    As far as being excused from an assignment – this is a misunderstanding from lots of people. As someone else noted, an excused assignment is not the same as an A on it. Excusing a ton of assignments in a science class isn’t a concern as long as the teacher writes and uses quality assessments that require students to explain/defend/critique/evaluate the material presented in class. When students in my class defend congruency of angles in a polygon, I’m sure they don’t “believe” it, but they just write what they know they need to.

  • Oberonsz

    This IS of course an atheist site. No hidden agenda here. The ONLY thing atheists are about is destroying Christianity. Just came back from Afghanistan (all expense paid tour curtesy of my Uncle) never see any atheists calling for the destruction of Allah over there. Or even here much. You should make signs and go protest in Kandahar. I’m sure if there was a button you could push to kill all Christians you would. Me? I don’t believe in broccoli so I don’t need to waste time arguing against things I believe are silly and imaginary.


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