JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri voters will be faced with a question of religious freedom Tuesday, as a proposed state constitutional amendment would specifically permit prayer in public and allow students to avoid assignments that violate their religious beliefs.
The measure on the statewide ballot says people have the right to pray in public or private so long as they do not disturb the peace, and it gives a specific imprimatur for prayer before government meetings. In addition, the proposal states students can express their beliefs and cannot be compelled to participate in school assignments or educational presentations that violate their religion. Missouri public schools also would be required to post the text of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
State lawmakers have debated such amendments for years, and the most recent proposal was placed on the August ballot after widely clearing the House and the Senate last year.
State Rep. Mike McGhee, the Odessa Republican who sponsored the measure, said the amendment is intended as a reminder that prayer is a right.
"We're not changing anything except the way people are thinking and getting that message out to the schools, school administrators and the teachers and letting people know, "You want to pray? Go ahead, it's OK,' " said McGhee. He added that it also would protect students and could be a model for other states.
Voters seem inclined to support the proposal. According to a recent poll for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KMOV of 625 registered voters, 82 percent supported the prayer amendment and 14 percent opposed it.
The Missouri Constitution currently says: "All men have a natural and indefensible 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." The constitution also says people cannot be declared ineligible for public office or kept from testifying or serving on a jury based upon their religious beliefs.
Opponents contend the measure's proposed changes could be confusing and are likely to spark court cases to determine what the revisions mean and how they should be applied.
Tony Rothert, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, said the prayer measure might give some government officials a mistaken impression about what is allowed. He said it also could force schools to evaluate what constitutes a legitimate complaint about an assignment running afoul of religious beliefs.
"It will open the door to a lot of litigation, especially if students learn about their rights," Rothert said. "Schools are used to controlling the curriculum and having a wide discretion in controlling the curriculum."
The ACLU has argued the ballot summary approved by lawmakers is misleading because it fails to mention the potential for students to refuse homework and a provision that says prisoners' religious rights are limited to federal law. A legal challenge over the summary was rejected earlier this year.
The measure's supporters include several religious and conservative organizations. Four Roman Catholic bishops in Missouri issued a joint statement urging Catholics to support the measure.
"Increasingly, it seems, religious values are becoming marginalized in society," the bishops wrote. "People of faith need assurance that they remain free to exercise and express their religious beliefs in public, provided just order be observed, without threat of external pressure to conform to changing societal "norms.' "
Another supporter, the Missouri Family Policy Council, said the measure gives prayer the same protections as other types of speech.
Although opposition has been relatively muted, the Missouri Libertarian Party approved a resolution objecting to the constitutional amendment, and other organizations formed the Missouri Coalition to Keep Politics Out of Religion.
Karen Aroesty, the regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said faith already plays a prominent role in society and that the state and U.S. constitutions protect religious rights. She said the proposed changes have the capacity to cause problems for religious minorities in Missouri.
"The amendment is redundant. Missouri law and constitutional law already protect from the concerns that appear to be raised by the folks who support it," Aroesty said. "The language is vague and ambiguous. It's going to result in a fair amount of litigation."