Missouri Court Upholds 'Right to Pray' Amendment

An Appeals Court in Missouri has ruled that a challenge to a proposed amendment regarding the right to pray in public lacks merit.

In Coburn v. Mayer, a panel of the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals decided last Wednesday that the "Right to Pray" amendment can appear on an upcoming state ballot. The plaintiffs in the case had argued that the proposed amendment was misleading in how it would define religious freedom in the state. The panel did not agree.

"The proposed amendment makes certain or safeguards the right to freedom of religious expression by setting forth specific ways to avoid infringing upon this right," reads the majority opinion.

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"By stating that the proposed amendment would ensure the right of Missouri citizens to express their religious beliefs without infringement, the summary statement fairly and impartially summarizes this purpose."

Introduced by Missouri Representative Michael McGhee in late 2010, the "Right-to-Pray" Amendment was referred by the General Assembly as "House Joint Resolution 2." HJR 2 was passed in March 2011 in the House by a vote of 126 ayes to 30 nays. It was passed in the State Senate unanimously (34 ayes, 0 nays) on May 10, 2011.

If approved by voters, the "Right to Pray" Amendment would allow for voluntary prayer on public property provided the prayers did not disturb the peace or require students to pray and openly acknowledge God in public schools. It would also require public schools to display a copy of the Bill of Rights.

While the amendment was passed overwhelmingly by both houses of the General Assembly, the proposed amendment is not without its critics. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has weighed in on the ballot effort and felt the court made the wrong decision.

Simon Brown, communications associate for Americans United, wrote on the blog "Wall of Separation" that the proposed amendment was redundant and too broad.

"We do know that it opens the door for coercive prayer and proselytizing in public schools, allows students to skip homework if it offends their religious beliefs and infringes on the religious liberty rights of prisoners," wrote Brown.

"Religious freedom is already protected in Missouri, so the amendment is redundant at best and a threat to individual freedom at worst."

In its majority opinion, the appeals panel argued that rather than being redundant regarding religious freedom rights, the proposed amendment "elaborates on its meaning with regard to prayer and the expression of religious beliefs in private and public settings, on government and public property, and in schools."

"Plaintiffs have not established that the failure to include the proposed amendment's rule of construction regarding prisoners' rights renders the summary statement insufficient or unfair," reads the decision.

"The language of the proposed amendment, however, does not repeal prisoners' state constitutional rights to religious freedom. Rather, it simply makes those rights coextensive with federal law."

The people of Missouri will vote on the proposed amendment on August 7.

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