Missourians have voted overwhelmingly for a ‘right-to-pray’ constitutional amendment that creationists may use to let students opt-out of certain topics in science class. When I voted on Tuesday in my St. Louis suburb (against this amendment, of course), the ballot described the proposed amendment with a single, innocuous sentence that basically nobody could disagree with (except maybe Richard Dawkins or Jerry Coyne). No wonder the thing passed with 83% in favor – you can make anything sound good if you’re not constrained by honesty, which, when it comes to prayer, one would think ought to be a constraint.
In the months leading up to the vote, Amendment 2 prompted unsuccessful lawsuits over its ballot wording, which its critics argued oversimplified the issue to the point of deceit.
The ballot language said the amendment would ensure Missourians’ right to express their religious beliefs, schoolchildren’s “right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools” and require all public schools to display the Bill of Rights.
The ballot did not mention language in the amendment allowing students to refuse to participate in school assignments that violate religious beliefs, or ensuring elected officials the right to pray on government property.
“This was misleading in its presentation and possibly unconstitutional in its application, so now we’re headed for the courts,” said Karen Aroesty of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois. “We’ll let the next branch of the democratic process do its part, and I suspect a case will be on file pretty soon.”
Critics have warned the amendment will indeed open the door to taxpayer-funded lawsuits.
Unfortunately for Missouri, much of these issues have already been settled in Federal Courts – you already have the right to pray “silently or verbally, seven days a week, twenty four hours a day, in private as Jesus taught or in large public events as Mohammed instructed.” And accommodations of creationism in the classroom have a terrible legal track record.
Since the right to pray in public or in private is already vigorously protected by the federal and state constitutions, the Proposed Constitutional Amendment would make only three changes to existing law. First, it would limit inmates in Missouri prisons and jails to the religious liberty rights provided by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and would strip them of their state constitutional protections for religious expression and liberty. Second, it would require all free public schools receiving state funds to display the text of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States. Third, it would give students in public and private schools a new right to refrain from participating in assignments or educational presentations that violate their religious beliefs.