Earlier this week, Missouri’s Amendment 2 ballot measure — dubbed the “right to pray” amendment — passed the state legislature with 83 percent of the vote. The amendment’s backers claim it puts important protections in place for Missouri’s Christians, who they say are often “public targets” despite the fact that Christians currently represent 80 percent of the state’s population.
The ballot language said the amendment will ensure religious liberty by allowing Missouri school children to express their beliefs openly in school and permitting state-funded schools to publicly display the Bill of Rights, both expressions that are already protected. In advance of the vote, the American Civil Liberties Union called the summary on the ballot “misleading because all people in Missouri currently enjoy very robust protections of their religious liberties” under both the state constitution and the U.S. Constitution.
Amendment 2 isn’t simply a superfluous reinforcement of existing protections, however. Although the ballot summary did not explicitly mention the section of the amendment that far oversteps the precedent of the separation between church and state, the “right to pray” amendment will also allow students to refuse to participate in any school assignments they believe violate their religious beliefs.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that advocacy and legal groups are already gearing up to fight against the new amendment:
“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.
“This is going to be a nightmare for school districts, which will end up getting sued by individuals on both sides of church-state debate,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “This is the most far-out constitutional amendment we’ve seen in the church-state area.”
The ACLU warns that giving students the power to reject any part of their academic assignments represents a “truly profound change in educational law” that will “adversely affect the quality of education in Missouri.” However, it is filing suit over yet another problematic aspect of the far-reaching law: while the amendment strengthens religious protections for students in state-funded schools and legislators on government property, it actually lessens the religious freedom of the state’s inmates, stripping prisoners of their state constitutional protections for religious expression.
States like Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, and Missouri have also moved toward allowing students to pursue religiously-based education in public schools, such as creationism or intelligent design in science classes. Louisiana’s Department of Education is currently under fire for funneling state funds into religious schools with Bible-based curricula.