Beyond November
6:40 am
Wed August 1, 2012

Missouri Right to Pray, or wrong to confuse? Voters to decide

When voters go to the polls on Tuesday they’ll be asked to decide on an amendment to the state constitution. Supporters say the Missouri Right to Pray amendment will protect residents’ right to practice their religion. Those against it say it’s not only redundant, but sneaky.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Julie Bierach reports.

"We need to make sure that people don't have to live in fear..."

Missouri House Speaker Pro Tem Shane Schoeller who is a vocal supporter of the amendment says in recent months, there have been a series of attacks on our religious freedom from liberals. He blames President Barack Obama for trying to force religious institutions to provide contraception. And he blames the ACLU for continually bringing lawsuits when someone’s tried to practice their faith in public. He says it’s time to fight back.

“We are clarifying this because lawsuits continue to come forward," Schoeller says. "And we need to make sure that people don’t have to live in fear that if they choose to practice their faith in a public setting there’s not going to be recourse against them.”

"An ocean of legalese."

Missourians already have religious freedom under not only the state constitution, but the U.S. Constitution. So opponents call the measure redundant, broad and confusing.

Gregory Lipper is an attorney with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. 

“It’s really just an ocean of legalese," Lipper says. "I mean, I’m a lawyer whose been practicing for almost a decade and I have trouble understanding exactly what this thing really does.”

Lipper says the amendment covers every aspect of life from schools, to the town square to public meetings. And in trying to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist, the effect will be to transfer lots of taxpayer dollars to lawyers.

Missouri Bishops are encouraging Catholics to vote for the amendment. Tyler McClay is an attorney and lobbyist for the Missouri Catholic Counsel, the public policy agency for the Catholic Church in Missouri. He acknowledges that the amendment will not create a new constitutional right. And he agrees it’s broad, but he says that’s not unusual.

“Constitutional provisions tend to be more broadly written," McClay says. "So, they’ll need to be interpreted or they’ll maybe need some clarification maybe down the road. But I don’t think that’s not uncommon for this kind of thing.”

Constitutional provisions tend to be more broadly written, so, they'll need to be interpreted... - Tyler McClay

What isn't on the ballot

Critics have another problem with the amendment. Seventh grade Ladue science teacher Elizabeth Petersen takes issue with the ballot summary, or in particular, what the ballot summary leaves out.

The measure reads, in short, that Missouri citizens have the right to express their religious beliefs, school children have the right to pray in their schools and public schools will display the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.

It makes no mention that the amendment would allow students to opt out of assignments or presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.

“Yeah, it’s absolutely sneaky," Petersen says. "And science isn’t about being sneaky.”

It's absolutely sneaky. And science isn't about being sneaky. - Elizabeth Petersen

So, if the amendment passes, what constitutes a religious belief? Can a student decide they can’t do their chemistry homework because covalent bonds go against their religion? And if they opt out of a biology assignment because they don’t believe in evolution can they still pass the course?

“That’s the big question," Petersen says. "I don’t know.”

Keeping decisions local

Representative Schoeller says that would be up to local school officials.

“I think most Boards of Education, local school boards, are very conscientious that when a law like this passes, they’re going to set up some guidelines for their local teachers to follow,” Schoeller says. 

Petersen fears that students are the ones who will suffer if opting out of critical science coursework is widely permitted.

"I think it’s important that kids understand if you opt out of this, here’s what you’re missing," Petersen says. "And in biology because evolution is such a major understanding, you don’t take biology, maybe you don’t graduate. So, why would the legislature intentionally handicap children? It’s bad legislation."

The ballot summary was challenged in a lawsuit earlier this year, but in June a state appeals court ruled that the challenge was without merit. A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll of 625 registered Missouri voters revealed that the amendment is likely to pass with 82 percent saying they would have voted in favor of it if the primary was held last week.

  • For more on this year’s campaigns and elections, go to  Beyond November, a coordinated election project with St. Louis Public Radio, Nine Network of Public Media and The St. Louis Beacon.

Follow Julie Bierach on Twitter: @jbierach