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May 31 2012

MO to Vote On ‘Right to Pray’ Amendment

An amendment to the state constitution of Missouri that purports to support a “right to pray” in that state will be on the ballot in August, when the state holds their presidential primary. That amendment would almost certainly pass anyway, but the fact that it’s happening on a day when Republicans have far more reason to vote makes it all but impossible to stop.

The language of the bill is incredibly broad and is an engraved invitation to a whole bunch of lawsuits to test the parameters of the new law after it passes. Here’s what it says:

That all men and women have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; that no human authority can control or interfere with the rights of conscience; that no person shall, on account of his or her religious persuasion or belief, be rendered ineligible to any public office or trust or profit in this state, be disqualified from testifying or serving as a juror, or be molested in his or her person or estate; that to secure a citizen’s right to acknowledge Almighty God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, neither the state nor any of its political subdivisions shall establish any official religion, nor shall a citizen’s right to pray or express his or her religious beliefs be infringed; that the state shall not coerce any person to participate in any prayer or other religious activity, but shall ensure that any person shall have the right to pray individually or corporately in a private or public setting so long as such prayer does not result in disturbance of the peace or disruption of a public meeting or assembly; that citizens as well as elected officials and employees of the state of Missouri and its political subdivisions shall have the right to pray on government premises and public property so long as such prayers abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances; that 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; 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; that the state shall ensure public school students their right to free exercise of religious expression without interference, as long as such prayer or other expression is private and voluntary, whether individually or corporately, and in a manner that is not disruptive and as long as such prayers or expressions abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances; and, to emphasize the right to free exercise of religious expression, that all free public schools receiving state appropriations shall display, in a conspicuous and legible manner, the text of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States; but 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.

Much of this is simply redundant. Prayers to begin legislative sessions at the state and local level are already protected under Marsh v Chambers and the cases that modify it, as long as those prayers are “non-sectarian” (a meaningless distinction, but that is a matter for another post). Student prayer and expressions of religious belief are already protected in nearly all circumstances; there are thousands and thousands of Bible clubs and prayer groups that meet in schools all over the country, including Missouri.

The gray area in that regard involves commencement prayers, which brings in the question of a captive audience. In general, I don’t think the captive audience argument is very strong as long as it is clear that the person offering the religious expression is clearly speaking for themselves and not for the school (such as when a valedictorian is picked through an objective process and chooses to speak about being motivated by their religious faith or something similar). But the language here seems to be much broader, that it’s allowed as long as it is given “in a manner that is not disruptive.” That seems far too broad to me and invites inevitable attempts to make students sit through the religious rituals of others.

But the key problem, it seems to me, is in the part I put in bold print. Under that language, a student could likely claim that they don’t have to learn about a subject if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. That would most obviously show up in a biology class teaching about evolution, but that’s hardly the limit of it. There are lots and lots of people who reject, for religious reasons, a huge range of things taught in school — big bang cosmology, heliocentrism, even many things taught in American and world history. Giving students the means of just not learning things that might conflict with their religion is clearly a very bad idea.

27 comments

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  1. 1
    baal
    or be molested in his or her person or estate

    How long until the SOVEREIGNTY movement would include any and all taxes as the equivalent of ‘molestation’? The whole thing is industrial grade Bad-Government(TM).

  2. 2
    uncephalized

    @baal “How long until the SOVEREIGNTY movement would include any and all taxes as the equivalent of ‘molestation’?”

    Well, this is the anarchist position, which philosophy I would think falls under the “personal sovereignty” umbrella. Try Googling “taxation equals force” or similar and see what pops up.

  3. 3
    Alverant

    What qualifies as “religious belief”? Can a student avoid gym class with that excuse? Or demand that all the homosexual students be removed because associating with them violates their beliefs? Or even that teachers have to give them perfect scores because to say they are ever wrong is a violation of their religion? Can it be used to force out female teachers since several holy books say that a woman shall have no authority over a man?

  4. 4
    tubi

    Under that language, a student could likely claim that they don’t have to learn about a subject if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

    But it doesn’t preclude teachers from simply failing the student for not completing the assignments, right? It would be a good test of the student’s faith to see them denied a diploma because they refuse to sit in class when they talk about evolution.

    And could colleges simply refuse to accept credits for those courses for anyone from a certain school, if it happens often enough that some kids opt out of biology, history, etc?

    Of course this would all play into the Christian persecution complex.

  5. 5
    eric

    ensure that any person shall have the right to pray individually or corporately in a private or public setting so long as such prayer does not result in disturbance of the peace or disruption of a public meeting or assembly

    Let me guess: a vocal prayer by officials or at a public meeting to a god the majority does not believe in will disturb that majority, and hence be ruled illegal. A vocal prayer to the god of the majority, in the same setting, will not disturb the majority and hence be ruled legal.

    Did I get that subtext right?

  6. 6
    eric

    @4:

    And could colleges simply refuse to accept credits for those courses for anyone from a certain school, if it happens often enough that some kids opt out of biology, history, etc?

    A few years ago, a college admissions officer wrote a letter to the editor to the Washington Post or NYT (I forget which). The subject was how other district’s policies that lead to grade inflation might impact ‘conservative grading’ districts. I.e., will our kids be hurt if we don’t follow suit and adopt policy x?

    The answer was: don’t worry. College admissions offices have a pretty good handle on which districts – and even which individual schools, for local communities – have tough programs, and which don’t. And, college admissions officials regularly share this information with other college admissions officials in other places, e.g. if they get an application from some unfamiliar area of the country. If your community wants to stay conservative in grading, it won’t hurt your kids.

    I don’t know how true that statement really was. But I would not be surprised college admissions offices are fully capable of figuring it out and responding appropriately, IF MO really does go the way of giving large-scale religious exemptions to learning important topics in science.

    On a more concrete level, in CA, the UC system must approve any California high school courses before that school’s students can participate in a fast-track admissions program (to the UC and Cal State systems). If they don’t approve, you can still go through regular admissions, just not this special program. Google ‘ACSI vs Stearns’ for an example of what happens when a High School decides to use unapproved, religiously-tilted instruction instead of regular curriculum. TL;DR – the UC system does exactly what you say, and rejects the entire course as not meeting their standard.

  7. 7
    Worldtraveller

    eric@5: I believe you’ve decoded the message perfectly.

  8. 8
    Robert B.

    And I’m sure everyone here noticed this, but specifying “pray to Almighty God,” rather than something like “actively observe the religion or philosophy of their choice” is biased against anyone who does not believe in prayer or monotheism, including Shintoists, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians, Wiccans, and atheists. (Also probably a lot of indigenous religions.) You can include prayer as an example of what you mean by “actively observe” if you want, but it’s incredible Christian privilege to assume that “pray to Almighty God” is somehow nonsectarian.

    I love laws that only protect other people’s rights⸮

  9. 9
    ashleybell

    I’m beginning to think that all this fol-de-rol is sheer obstanacy. They don’t give a fuck about praying in schools or whatever. It’s simply ‘ain’t noboby gonna tell me what I can’t do” (except that nobody is.

    Everyone has a right to take a shit. but who would argue that laws about where we shit are a bad idea

  10. 10
    ashleybell

    And I guess putting these laws through is a whole lot easier than doing real work on laws that actually help people

  11. 11
    John Hinkle

    that 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;

    So could, say, one individual in the General Assembly, in the interests of inclusion of course, invite 50 or 60 people to perform “other prayers” for various mythologies? Could we shut Missouri government down with this law?

  12. 12
    reedcartwright

    Note that the bolded section is not restricted to public school students. I can see much fun happening if a private school student object to manadatory bible readings.

  13. 13
    Sastra

    That all men and women have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences;

    I’ll bet they really, really like this part and would, if possible, try to use it wherever they can to repeatedly emphasize and demonstrate that the United States of America officially recognizes the existence of God as a fact. The issue is not up for dispute. We the people are all agreed.

    Only a few minor contrarian cranks would argue otherwise, apparently.

    Given this preamble, God isn’t something you believe in; it’s something you acknowledge. To do otherwise is perverse — like pretending you don’t see the sun.

    I know the language is not original to this amendment, but it still pisses me off. This is the 21st century, and nonbelievers are more open and vocal. The same statement could easily be rephrased so as not to carry the undeniable implication that the existence of God is officially recognized by the government – but you know damn well they wouldn’t do it. Sly of them. I’m sure they’re all very smug when they read that part out.

  14. 14
    abb3w

    I wonder if there’s any secularist Christians in the MO branches of the Society for Creative Anachronism who’d be inclined to try getting their kid excused from Social Studies on the grounds that they support the Divine Right Of Kings, and pretty much the entire US History part of the curriculum violates that religious belief.

  15. 15
    Ichthyic

    the fact that it’s happening on a day when Republicans have far more reason to vote makes it all but impossible to stop.

    I think you have it backwards, Ed.

    the purpose of initiatives like this is to stimulate the base to go out and vote for republicans.

    most of those republicans really don’t see it as at all important one way or the other if that initiative passes, so long as it does its job of playing “hotbutton” to the religious RWAs and gets them to the voting booth.

  16. 16
    tomh

    the purpose of initiatives like this is to stimulate the base to go out and vote for republicans.

    Which is pretty much the reason why the Democratic governor moved it up to August. Since it will bring out the conservative voters, better to have them come out and vote amongst themselves in the primary, than to stimulate them to come out in November for the general election and vote against Democrats.

  17. 17
    Modusoperandi

    Finally, someone is willing to stand up and defend the rights of the majority to do what it wants and not have outside ideas intrude. And in Missouri, that hotbed of radical secular politics, even.

  18. 18
    Ichthyic

    Which is pretty much the reason why the Democratic governor moved it up to August.

    smart.

  19. 19
    Brain Hertz

    But it doesn’t preclude teachers from simply failing the student for not completing the assignments, right? It would be a good test of the student’s faith to see them denied a diploma because they refuse to sit in class when they talk about evolution.

    I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but it’s arguable. The specific language is:

    that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs

    there’s an obvious argument to be had about the interpretation of the term compelled. Denying a student a diploma (or even a passing grade on that particular assignment) could easily be argued to constitute compulsion.

    There’s also the preceding clause which says:

    that students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work;

    What would happen here if a student turned in an assignment on evolution that just said “God did it. The end.”. Would the teacher be permitted to fail the student? More to the point, would the teacher be afraid to fail the student and not do so as a result?

  20. 20
    mrianabrinson

    I live in MO and I’m wondering if the FFRF can and would step in on this one. IMHO it is a disruption and I object. It is not freedom FROM religion and in order to have freedom OF religion, we have to have freedom FROM it.

  21. 21
    latecomer

    “in order to have freedom OF religion, we have to have freedom FROM it.”
    I agree. It’s always word when people separate the two, as if they’re different things.

  22. 22
    Ichthyic

    that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs

    I swear, it looks just like the joke shit we used to write up in high school to pretend we could get out of taking geometry.

  23. 23
    Ichthyic

    What would happen here if a student turned in an assignment on evolution that just said “God did it. The end.”. Would the teacher be permitted to fail the student?

    yes, because they wouldn’t be failing them for what they believe, but rather on missing the entire content of the assignment.

    you don’t get credit in math for saying 2+2=5, regardless of what you fucking believe.

  24. 24
    M can help you with that.

    uncephalized @ 2 –

    That’s more like Libertarianism/Randroidism. Anarchism is just a bit more, well…a branch of socialism. It’s less “taxes are theft” than “property is theft”. A government tax on capitalist private property is just an exchange between thieves.

  25. 25
    jman3030

    And immediately I thought of this:
    http://digitaljournal.com/article/122434

  26. 26
    Brain Hertz

    yes, because they wouldn’t be failing them for what they believe, but rather on missing the entire content of the assignment.

    you don’t get credit in math for saying 2+2=5, regardless of what you fucking believe.

    Well, that should be the right answer, but I think you might be being optimistic.

  27. 27
    kermit.

    …any person shall have the right to pray individually or corporately in a private or public setting so long as such prayer does not result in disturbance of the peace or disruption of a public meeting or assembly;

    Would praying in the middle of class, even during the teacher’s lecture, count as”disturbance of the peace”? I think not. But how about “disruption of a public meeting or assembly”?

    Sounds like an opportunity for the adolescent faithful to speak in tongues in history class.

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