By Sandhya Bathija
The Missouri Senate has spoken, and for the third year in a row, it has refused to advance a constitutional amendment permitting government-sponsored religious activities.
Religious Right activists, who lobbied hard for the measure, are none too happy about losing, again –and have pinned the blame on Americans United and our allies.
We’re happy to accept this blame. AU worked hard to derail this dangerous resolution.
Under SJR 31, a constitutional amendment would have been submitted to the voters reaffirming “the citizen’s right to free expression of religion” and specifying that “individuals have the right to individual or group prayer in all private or public areas.”
The amendment would have also “provide[d] that students may engage in private and voluntary prayer, acknowledgment of God, or other religious expression, individually or in groups, and express their religious beliefs in school assignments without discrimination based on the religious content of their work.”
Religious Right groups claimed the measure would “protect the religious freedoms of all Missourians” and did not allow for anything not already permitted under state law. They hoped to fool Missouri voters by claiming the amendment was in the name of religious liberty, but Americans United and its allies saw right through this, and so did the Missouri Senate.
In a January letter sent to every Missouri senator, AU’s Legislative Counsel Dena Sher pointed out that the amendment would likely harm, rather than strengthen, the religious liberty rights of Missouri’s citizens. The measure would grant greater protections for religious speech over other types of speech, and it could easily be abused by government officials who wanted to push a particular religious belief.
“It would seem that it was the intent of the legislature to not just protect, but to prefer religious speech, including prayer,” the letter asserted. “Not all Missourians subscribe to a religious belief or worship the same monotheistic God that is referred to in the amendment. … [T]his proposed amendment would change the delicate balance of protecting all citizens, all beliefs, and all speech equally.”
In January, Cynthia Holmes, an activist with AU’s St. Louis Chapter (and a former AU trustee), testified against the proposal before the General Laws Committee of the Missouri Senate. And in April, AU sent another letter, noting these concerns.
Our work paid off and the amendment has failed to make it onto the Missouri ballot this legislative session. But proponents of the measure, despite a third loss, are not going to let it go.
“The leadership of the Missouri Senate needs to put an end to this injustice and give Missourians the opportunity to vote on this critical issue,” said Joe Ortwerth, executive director for the Missouri Family Policy Council. (The council, state affiliate of Focus on the Family says its mission is to advance “Christian citizenship in our culture and Christian statesmanship in Missouri government.”)
“Next session,” said Ortwerth, “[Missouri senators] will have the chance to prove they are serious about this subject.”
We’ll be ready for yet another round.