The Missouri Senate Chambers housed a handful of new “senators” Saturday during the Missouri Catholic Conference’s mock legislature at the Capitol as students debated real-life issues legislators have had to wrestle with.
Sitting in senators’ chairs, eight students from across the state debated topics that have come before the Missouri Legislature in previous years, including those regarding the death penalty, conceal and carry on college campuses, work requirements for individuals on food stamps, and the creation of a program to monitor certain harmful drugs.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the students to gain a true understanding of what legislators experience and debate, said Rita Linhart, Missouri Catholic Conference senior staff associate.
“I think it gives them a sense of the moral dilemma that the legislators have to go through,” she said. “They have to make choices and decisions, and some of these issues are contentious, so they have to make a decision on them, and it’s not always easy.”
This became clear when the students had to consider their moral compasses and think critically before taking varying stances on a proposed bill regarding mental illness and the death penalty.
House Bill 2509 would establish a court hearing to prove if someone charged with first-degree murder suffered from one of the mental illnesses listed in the bill at the time he or she committed the crime. If proven, that individual would be exempt from the death penalty.
“Senator 4” Gracie Smith, a freshman from Eldon, sponsored the proposed bill and referenced the Catholic Church’s rejection of the death penalty.
“Nobody deserves the death penalty,” she said. “They need to have a chance to reconcile with God before moving on.”
Next to Smith, Macy Morris, a seventh-grader from Jefferson City, opposed the bill. While she does not agree with the death penalty, “Senator 14” said, the bill could encourage people to lie about mental illnesses.
“Let’s say someone kills someone. All they would have to do is pretend to have a mental illness and be spared by the death penalty, so I think there’s a lot of room for more opportunities for people who don’t have mental illnesses not to get the death penalty,” Morris argued.
After debating the possible loopholes in the bill, how science could help indicate mental illnesses and the psychiatric effect prison could have on someone, the mock senators passed the bill 7-1, with Morris being the sole opponent.
HB2509, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Hannegan, R-St. Charles, stalled in the House in April 2018 after legislative action was postponed.
While she was nervous at first to debate, Morris said, she enjoyed it and has even considered pursuing a legislative position when she is older.
“You got different perspectives on different things that are happening, and it really helped to find out what other people thought because you could think about what you thought and what they thought and figure out what may be the best thing to do,” Morris said.
Smith nodded in agreement, adding she thought it was informative to hear other people’s perspectives and learn how to debate in a civilized manner.
Another highly debated bill during the mock legislature involved business hours on Thanksgiving.
HB37 would establish the Thanksgiving Family Protection Act, requiring retailers to close on Thanksgiving Day. The bill would not apply to restaurants and retailers whose primary business is the sale of gas or pharmaceuticals.
Morris spoke in favor of the bill and said the holiday should not be just about food or shopping.
“Thanksgiving is really about family, and it’s not about all the food,” she told her fellow senators. “It should be about celebrating with the family.”
People sometimes forget groceries or do not have time to buy food before Thanksgiving, “Senator 31” Charlie Warner, a seventh-grader from Holden, argued.
“What if you have a funeral or have to do something right now and tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I can’t go get groceries? I rest my case,” Warner said while slapping his hands lightly on the desk, leading to chuckles from the audience.
The bill failed after the young senators had a tied vote of 4-4.
HB37, sponsored by former Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, stalled in the House in 2013 after it was left pending in the House General Laws Committee.
Mike Hoey, former executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, was the senators’ assistant throughout the mock legislature, answering procedural questions or encouraging students to express their opinions.
After the session, Hoey said he was impressed by the students’ critical thinking and willingness to listen to opposing views.
“I think it’s good that they learn that there’s a process — a calm, civil process — to air differences and that people can disagree and still be friends and civil with each other,” he said. “Too often, what they see from professional politicians is people insulting each other and they’re not really listening to each other. I saw them listening to each other. If we get more people like this, like these kids, to be politicians, we’re going to be better off.”