By Rob Boston
The influx of “Tea Party” conservatives who flooded the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures earlier this year promised to focus on jobs and the economy. So why are getting a relentless barrage of bills on social issues?
Consider Missouri. The state House of Representatives there recently passed a so-called “Religious Freedom Amendment” that Religious Right groups think is wonderful. Everyone else ought to be terrified.
The amendment would supposedly codify the right of Missourians to express their religious beliefs in public places. But we already have a provision that does that: The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (In addition, Article I, Section 5 of the Missouri Constitution enshrines religious freedom as well.)
The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees that you can pray in a voluntary and non-disruptive manner at any government site or function. Children can even pray in public schools, as long as it’s their decision to do so, not some school official’s.
That’s never enough for the Religious Right. What they’re really after is a big display of official prayer, something blaring over loudspeakers or some state official taking it upon himself to engage in religious activity on behalf of everyone. They want government-imposed religion, not voluntary expressions of faith.
The sponsor of the amendment (HJR 2) in the House is Rep. Mike McGhee, an Odessa Republican. McGhee said he was motivated to act because children in public schools were being denied their religious liberty. He said kids have been told not to bring Bibles to school or wear crosses.
So where did these things happen and when? What school told a child he or she could not bring a Bible to school? If that happened, Americans United would be happy to write to the school officials and set them straight.
But I suspect these incidents didn’t happen. These stories are the Religious Right version of “urban legends” – you know, the kind of tale that always happened to a friend of a friend and seems kind of hard to swallow. (“So my aunt’s cousin’s sister-in-law from Hoboken, you see, she really enjoyed that cookie at Neiman-Marcus. And when she asked for the recipe, they gave it to her – along with a bill for $250!”)
A state constitution is a serious document and shouldn’t be rewritten on the basis of some folklore spread by Religious Right activists. Nor should it be rewritten in a manner that infringes on the rights of others by encouraging the government to impose worship on people.
Versions of this dangerous measure have surfaced previously in Missouri. In years past, AU activists in the state have worked to defeat this amendment in the state Senate. Unfortunately, the composition of that body has changed, and we’re not sure how things will play out this year.
Yesterday, Americans United sent a letter to every member of the Missouri Senate’s General Laws Committee, outlining our objections to the amendment. The letter states in part, “All Missourians should oppose playing politics with religious liberty – one of our most precious freedoms. In order to win political points, the proponents of this resolution risk harming religious freedom. Not only would the proposed amendment change fundamental guarantees in the state Constitution, but it also favors some religious faiths over others.”
The letter was accompanied by a detailed analysis of the amendment explaining its many faults – not the least of which is that might very well conflict with the U.S. Constitution’s church-state separation provisions.
Focus on the Family is celebrating the amendment’s passage in the House and will be putting pressure on the Senate as well. Defenders of church-state separation must respond. If you live in Missouri, please contact your legislators. Call your state senator and tell him or her that you oppose SJR 16 (the Senate version of the House amendment).
It’s important that we speak out. The theocrats are on the march in Missouri (and elsewhere), yearning to use the government to impose their narrow version of faith onto everyone else. We need to teach them a lesson: Real religious freedom is precious, and we won’t tolerate Religious Right efforts to redefine it.