Thursday, February 28, 2008

Prayer amendment is unnecessary election year posturing

How can you tell it is an election year?

That's an easy one. You take a look at the useless posturing being done by politicians on hot-button issues that really do not have much of an effect on the most serious problems of our times.

One that always comes up is this fiction that there is a vast horde of public schoolteachers and administrators who spend every waking moment watching out for young people who have the audacity to pray at school or carry a Bible.

The tactics that are used are similar to the ones used by those promoting another piece of useless legislation- last year's Castle Doctrine law. You might recall that those pushing that unnecessary bill kept talking about law-abiding Missourians who were sued because they protected their lives or their property from evildoers. Yet to this day no one has shown a single case in which such a thing happened within our borders.

I will concede there have been a few cases of public school administrators going overboard and misinterpreting students' First Amendment rights to pray and to carry the Bible. But that is the point, students (and teachers, too, as long as they do not try to influence students' religious views) already have that right under the U. S. Constitution. We don't need to waste the taxpayers' money on this repetitious legislation. If there is a problem (and if there is one, it is not widespread), have the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education send out a memo, or even a series of memos, to Missouri school administrators, outlining exactly what freedoms students have.

Of course, if we did that, our legislators would not be able to strut about the state during an election year defending God and country from a menace that does not exist.

The subject of students' right to pray and exercise their religion in public schools is not a new one for me to write about. Those who read The Carthage Press during the 1990s will recall I wrote numerous columns about the subject during that decade, following the fight for prayer at football games in Lamar, the battle of a Jasper High School student prayer group to meet on school property, and numerous other incidents.

That was a time in which there were a number of public school officials who were receiving contrary opinions from the courts and state officials about the role of religion in schools. Nearly all of those concerns have now been addressed. Student-led prayer groups have access to school buildings, and students have the freedom to pray and carry their Bibles to school. Education of school officials, and clear decisions by the courts were the key to resolving these issues. Constitutional amendments were not needed...and they are not needed now.

This year's legislation is sponsored by Rep. Cynthia Davis, who talked it in this week's Capitol Report:

Few instances bring people together in prayer quite like tragedy does. We can all remember the scenes of the 9/11 tragedy when acts of prayer and patriotism were respected once again. Just this month, thousands gathered in Kirkwood to honor and pray for those who died after the shooting at Kirkwood City Hall. The right to pray is inherent in our country’s Constitution, and thank God, because we need the power of prayer to get through these trying circumstances.

However, in some environments, students’ first amendment rights are being trampled by school policies that are reflective of an anti-God, anti-Christian bias. The “politically correct” crowds have pushed their agenda so far they have attempted to erase much of the heritage and traditions that give us our moral fiber. Many people feel they must check any religious beliefs at the door. Yet, sadly, this belief is the exact opposite of the grounds upon which our country was founded.

To ensure that every Missourian knows he or she has the right to pray in public places, the legislature recently took a first step. The House passed legislation onto the Senate that will give Missouri citizens the opportunity to vote on a state constitutional amendment to clarify the right to pray in public, House Joint Resolution 55, and which reiterates our freedom of speech in Missouri.

The sponsor of this resolution told a story of students who had been prohibited from even carrying a Bible onto a school bus. While I don’t believe this is indicative of all of Missouri’s school districts, I do think we need to make all districts consistent and make sure Missouri students never have to question their freedom to carry a Bible if they choose. Some of the stories of harassment we have heard would make you wonder in what country we are living.

HJR 55 will ensure our students are not being shamed and silenced while other students with far more outrageous behavior are being encouraged. If given final approval by the General Assembly and the voters of Missouri, the amendment would guarantee a citizen's First Amendment right to pray and worship in all public areas, including schools, as long as the activities are voluntary and subject to the same rules and regulations that apply to all other types of speech.

It also would reaffirm the right of employees and elected officials of the State of Missouri to pray on government premises and public property. Here in the Capitol, we have regular prayer breakfasts and we pray before session begins, but we want to make sure employees in all state buildings have this right clearly stated so they can pray freely without fear of punishment.

This constitutional amendment will not change the law – but it will help define and strengthen the law for the people of Missouri. In a country that has become so politically correct, some of our citizens have real concerns about their rights and one of my jobs as your representative is to make sure basic American rights are being upheld.

Some decisions make one think that the religion of atheism is being promoted above all others. Some people mistakenly think a secular setting is the same as being anti-religious.

One component of the legislation requires that all public schools receiving state funds display the text of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution in a conspicuous and legible manner. This can serve as a simple and strong reminder of our rights, including religious freedom, which we are guaranteed as U.S. citizens.

Here is the text of the proposed legislation. The bold text is the new language. The normal text is already in our state constitution.

Bill of Rights

Article I, Section 5,Constitution of Missouri

That all men and women have a natural and indefeasible 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; that no person shall, on account of his or her religious persuasion or belief, be rendered ineligible to any public office or trust or profit in this state, be disqualified from testifying or serving as a juror, or be molested in his or her person or estate; that to secure a citizen's right to acknowledge Almighty God according to the dictates of personal convictions, neither the state nor any of its political subdivisions shall establish any official religion, but a citizen's right to pray or to express his or her religious beliefs shall not be infringed; that the state shall not compose prayers nor coerce any person to participate in any prayer or other religious activity, but shall ensure public school students their right to free exercise of religious expression without interference, as long as such prayer or other expression is private and voluntary, whether individually or corporately, and in a manner that is not disruptive nor in violation of other policies, rules, or standards, and as long as such prayers or expressions abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances; and, to emphasize the right to free exercise of religious expression, that all free public schools receiving state appropriations shall display, in a conspicuous and legible manner, the text of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States; but this section shall not be construed to excuse acts of licentiousness, nor to justify practices inconsistent with the good order, peace or safety of the state, or with the rights of others.

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