Look for religious freedoms amendment proposal
June 12, 2012
Commentary by
Rep. Mike Kelley of Lamar,
District 126 - Republican
(serving the counties of Jasper, Barton, Dade and Polk)

A proposed constitutional amendment to protect the religious freedoms of Missouri citizens and schoolchildren will appear on the statewide August 7th, 2012 ballot. Governor Jay Nixon says he decided to place the proposal on the primary election ballot rather than the general election ballot in November "because the provisions of the amendment would be effective immediately." I am not convinced that was the reason for placing it on the August ballot instead of the November ballot, but I am glad the people of Missouri get the chance to vote on this. Approval by a simple majority of voters is required for passage.

The Prayer Amendment spells out in specific detail the free exercise rights of children in public schools and citizens in the public square. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that "a citizen's right to pray or express his or her religious beliefs shall not be infringed" in both public and private settings.

The amendment would guarantee that public school students have the right to pray individually and collectively on public school premises so long as the prayer is private and voluntary, and non-disruptive. Students would also be assured the right to share their faith and religious beliefs so long as their expressions fall within the same limitations placed upon any other free speech in similar circumstances.

The Prayer Amendment also explicitly provides that students may communicate their religious beliefs in written and oral assignments "free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work." Furthermore, the religious liberty amendment would establish the right of students to decline participation in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate their religious beliefs.

Yet the scope of the Prayer Amendmentís provisions extends beyond the public school setting. The amendment also asserts that any citizen has the right to pray individually or as a group in public or private settings "so long as such prayer does not result in disturbance of the peace or disruption of a public meeting or assembly."

The religious liberty proposal explicitly authorizes citizens and public officials to pray and acknowledge God on government premises and public property, whether it is an Easter sunrise service in a public park or a prayer meeting in a public library. The amendment also safeguards the right of the state of Missouri and local governments to invite ministers to offer invocations before meetings of government bodies.

Lastly, the Prayer Amendment calls for the text of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution to be posted in every public school throughout the state.

The Missouri Family Policy Council played a leading role in developing much of the language in the amendment. The Legislature acted during last year's legislative session to place the issue before voters. Representative Mike McGhee of Odessa was the sponsor of the legislation, and Senator Jack Goodman of Mt. Vernon shepherded the bill to passage in the Missouri Senate.

Missouri's religious liberty amendment is a response to continuing efforts by atheist groups to stifle and suppress religious freedom in community life. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom from Religion Foundation engage in nonstop legal battles to purge religious values and spiritual sentiments from the public arena.

These atheist groups threaten public schools and public institutions with costly litigation if they fail to act to repress the expression of free speech with religious content. While these groups regularly provide a false interpretation of the concept of the "separation of church and state," many school administrators and public officials yield to their demands. They either fail to understand the true nature of laws governing the free exercise of religion, or they choose not to be drawn into expensive and protracted legal battles.

The objective of the Prayer Amendment is to provide clarity to citizens and to public officials alike as to the nature and extent of their free exercise rights under the federal and state constitutions.

The ACLU is currently engaged in a full-fledged campaign to crush religious freedom in Franklin County, Missouri. The ACLU has filed suit in U. S. District Court alleging that the Franklin County Commission is violating the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by offering invocations before their meetings. They argue that such prayers amount to an unconstitutional establishment of religion. This claim stands in clear contradiction to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1983 decision in Marsh v. Chambers where the High Court ruled that invocations do not constitute a governmental establishment of religion.

The ACLU had previously demanded that Franklin County Commissioners cease praying before their meetings, or if prayers were to be offered, that they be "non-sectarian" in nature. Translated, that means, that the name of Jesus Christ could not be included. The Franklin County Commission is in the midst of developing a formal policy regarding public invocations at their meetings.

In the meantime, members of Congress are speaking out in support of the practice of governmental invocations. U.S. Representative Tim Wahlberg of Michigan has introduced a resolution supporting the voluntary practice of prayer at the beginning of meetings of deliberative public bodies, including school boards. Wahlberg's resolution has been co-sponsored by 33 other members of the U.S. House, including Missouri Congressman Todd Akin and Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler.

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