Editorial: Can we Avoid Another Embarrassment for Missouri?

Missouri CapitolThe Missouri House recently considered a frightening bill promoting Intelligent Design. Fortunately, that bill died in legislature.

Unfortunately, however, the Missouri legislature’s embarrassing session managed to pass another bill that will present to the voters of Missouri the chance to gut science education and the First Amendment in other ways.

This bill will be called the Right-to-pray Amendment, but its effects would be much greater than just letting private citizens pray (a right already guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution).

The text of the amendment includes three clauses that really concern me. The first two involve letting government officials endorse particular religions:

that … elected officials and employees of the state of Missouri and its political subdivisions shall have the right to pray on government premises and public property so long as such prayers abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstance


that the General Assembly and the governing bodies of political subdivisions may extend to ministers, clergypersons, and other individuals the privilege to offer invocations or other prayers at meetings or sessions of the General Assembly or governing bodies

These open up the door to violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by giving public officials the ability and right to endorse particular religions on taxpayers’ dimes. The precedent from Marsh v. Chambers is that

legislative bodies may open their meetings with prayers if “there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief” and if the practices “harmonize[d] with the tenets of some or all religions.” [Americans United]

I get no sense from this bill that any care about non-dominant religious belief will be observed.

The third section that worries me is about education:

that students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work; that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs

I would guess that this is intended to give students a way to avoid Evolution without using language specific enough to trip the Edwards v. Aguillard Constitutional test, but the effect is potentially so much broader than that.

  • Should Hare Krishna students get to insist on As when they deny the moon landing because that’s a tenet of their religion?
  • What about members of the Church of Last Thursdayism? Do they get automatic As in all History classes because they can force the teacher to accept “Didn’t happen” on any paper?
  • How much of geology, paleontology, biology, and history can Young Earth Creationists insist on being ignorant about?

Are we really to be a state in which students can ignore any assignment they think conflicts with religious belief? Willful rejection of scientifically-discovered reality shouldn’t get official endorsement.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much confidence in the increasingly red voters of the Show Me State to follow the Constitution and defend evidence over faith on this one. I really hope I’m wrong.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.