Religious freedom or academic suppression?

Nathan Zoschke

Public Prayer Amendment draws speculation

 

Voters in Missouri’s Aug. 7 primary overwhelmingly approved adding specific language to the state constitution affirming the right to pray in public.

Despite a landslide 83-17 percent victory, Amendment 2, officially titled the “Missouri Public Prayer Amendment,” has drawn speculation and controversy.

The ballot summary left out several controversial provisions, and some argued the ballot language was misleading.

  • The ballot language states that a “yes” vote will prohibit the state or its political subdivisions from establishing an official religion, and defines freedom of worship to include prayer in public and private settings, including government premises, all public property and public schools. It also requires public schools to display the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution.
  • The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution already protects the free exercise of religion, including an individual’s right to pray in public.
  • Text from the Missouri amendment, not included in the ballot summary, affirms the right to worship and acknowledge “Almighty God.” Some believe this is exclusive of polytheistic and nontheistic religions.
  • Language not in the ballot summary prohibits the extension of rights granted under the amendment to prison inmates beyond those guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU of Eastern Missouri has filed suit, claiming such language is discriminatory.
  • The ballot summary also excluded wording from the amendment that allows students to opt out of “academic assignments or education presentations” that violate their religious beliefs, and to “express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work.”

‘Disappointed and disturbed’

Dr. Gary Ebersole, chair of the Faculty Senate and History Department, said he was “disappointed and disturbed” by the amendment’s passage.

“I don’t think most faculty are aware of the implications of what has happened yet,” Ebersole said. “Very few people have read the fine print, the section that talks about students’ ability to opt out of readings and assignments.”

Ebersole expressed concerns about how the amendment’s language will impact students in courses such as religious studies, or those required for medical certification in Missouri, such as evolutionary and reproductive biology.

“The language is so broad that anyone could opt out of any activities that are part of the syllabus,” Ebersole said. “What if students were to say, ‘I don’t want to study this, but I want the degree’?”

A question of interpretation

Professor Allen Rostron, a Constitutional law scholar, said there has been speculation among Constitutional law faculty at UMKC about the prayer amendment.

“The main issue we’re thinking about is how people would apply this in a broad way that would impact an academic setting,” Rostron said. “Will people use it to say they can’t study certain subjects?”

Rostron said authors of Amendment 2 promoted it as a reiteration of existing Constitutional rights.

“The key language is about students not being required to perform or participate,” Rostron said. “I can see it applied and interpreted in a narrow context.”

A broad understanding of certain provisions, however, could be troublesome for educators.

“If students can opt out because they don’t agree with learning about a topic, it poses a big problem for teachers,” he said. “It’s tricky for law in particular, because as lawyers, you’re learning to represent other people and make arguments that aren’t always consistent with your personal beliefs.”

Ebersole expressed similar concerns.

“This [Amendment 2] really says people have the right to remain ignorant—I don’t mean stupid, I mean not having knowledge,” Ebersole said. “It becomes impossible to educate a student. All students need to encounter new ideas and have their assumptions challenged.”

Rostron said he doesn’t have a problem with most of the amendment’s language.

“It says kids have a right to pray as long as it’s not on an organized basis, and that’s what the Supreme Court has said,” Rostron explained. “I don’t think it will have an impact other than how teachers phrase questions like, ‘Explain how the human species evolved.’ It could be stated another way, like, ‘Explain the theory of evolution.’”

What’s the point?

Rostron said language like Amendment 2 is sometimes added to state constitutions as a cautionary measure to reaffirm rights spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.

“Sometimes it’s important to have something that is symbolic, underscoring the importance of these ideas,” Rostron said. “There’s a concern that even if these legal rights exist, they may not be as widely known or respected as they should be. An example would be a teacher who mistakenly tells a student not to pray at school.”

A religious studies scholar, Ebersole believes the amendment is catered to those with Judeo-Christian beliefs.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Ebersole said. “The language is Jewish-Christian theological language. ‘Almighty God’ is capitalized and singular. What does one do with Hindu or Buddhist citizens, or any other poly- or non-theistic religion?”

Rostron said it is unconstitutional to discriminate against mono-, poly- or non-theistic religions.

“A lot of these old cases go back to conscientious objections to the military draft,” Rostron said. “The First Amendment has made clear that the government has no business [qualifying a religious belief].”

According to Rostron, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted religion broadly.

“Religion is defined legally to mean any personal, sincerely held spiritual belief even if it doesn’t apply to organized religion,” Rostron said.

The road ahead

Rostron said he doesn’t believe the ACLU case “sounds like a particularly strong suit.”

“The ACLU has focused on the prisoner part,” Rostron said. “They’re saying basically criminals are being discriminated against because they only get what federal law provides.”

According to Ebersole, there is a system-level discussion among the provosts of the four University of Missouri schools and Steven Graham, the senior associate vice president for academic affairs. A set of guidelines pertaining to the amendment has been discussed, although much depends on how the amendment will be interpreted by the courts.

“At this point, it’s so nebulous that we won’t have any real guidelines until courts get involved,” Ebersole said.

Provost Gail Hackett declined to be interviewed, but issued the following statement:

“Understanding the potential ramifications of Missouri Amendment 2 on public universities will require extensive research and consultations with counsel. Until that process is complete, any comment on the matter would be premature.”

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