Come November, the people of Missouri will vote on whether they have the right to pray privately in public places – a right that all Americans already have.
Sadly, some legislators in the Show Me State don’t seem to get that. That’s why both the House and Senate just passed the Religious Freedom in Public Places Act (HJR 2), a measure that proposes a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a citizen’s right to pray and worship on public property, including public schools.
Americans United is all for religious freedom and the private individual’s right to pray how and when they see fit. But AU has opposed this measure every time it has popped up in the Missouri legislature for the past five years because not only is it a waste of time, it can only spawn confusion.
Earlier this year, we wrote a letter to members of the Missouri Senate making it clear that if approved, this amendment will likely lead to more constitutional violations and lawsuits, especially if government officials think this authorizes them to impose prayer and religious worship on others while acting in a public role.
“This amendment would substantially change the state’s existing guarantee of religious liberty,” the letter asserted. “Because courts are obligated to give every word meaning when interpreting the Constitution, they will likely view the additional lengthy exposition of what the free exercise means as granting different rights than those currently guaranteed by the Constitution — and rights that even go beyond the stated intent of the resolution.”
The measure’s sponsor, Mike McGhee (R-Odessa), said he proposed the measure for the past five straight years because he heard reports from around the state of students being stopped while praying at public schools, though there is no verifiable evidence of this ever happening.
McGhee also told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he feared the separation of church and state would keep people from praying privately.
“If voters approve this, it will send a message that the citizens of the state believe it’s OK to read a Bible in study hall,” McGhee said. “That it’s OK to pray briefly before a City Council meeting. That’s what we were trying to do by bringing this amendment forward.”
We’ve got news for McGhee – it’s already legal for a student to read a Bible in study hall. And prayer before a government meeting, if on an individual basis, is OK too. If any Americans were denied their religious freedom rights, Americans United and our allied groups would be first in line to defend them.
The problem arises when public officials impose their religious views while acting on behalf of the government. As Americans United remarked in its letter on the issue last year, “Government employees, when acting as private citizens, have free speech rights equal to that of any other citizen. However, within the context of their employment, public servants’ free speech rights are somewhat diminished because they speak on behalf of the state. …[T]he provision could readily be misinterpreted, allowing employees to improperly proselytize or engage in religious speech while conducting their jobs as government employees.”
That’s probably the outcome McGhee is seeking. He may say this measure changes nothing – but then why has he so adamantly pushed it year after year? That’s a lot of work to put in for something that does nothing.
In fact, the amendment could very well muddy the constitutional waters by leading people to believe they have rights they in fact don’t have – like the right to impose prayer on others in a government or public school setting. Federal courts decide those issues under the U.S. Constitution, and no amendment added to the Missouri Constitution can change that.
If you live in Missouri, educate your friends and family about this measure. Remind them that the U.S. Constitution already grants them the right to pray (or not) whenever and wherever they choose. That’s because of the separation of church and state, not in spite of it.