|Legislative Leaders Seek Strong Defense of Religious Liberty Bill|
Missouri legislative leaders are calling on Attorney General Chris Koster to provide a strong legal defense for the proposed religious liberty amendment to the Missouri Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a legal challenge to the ballot summary
for the amendment, claiming that is insufficient and unfair. Leaders of the Missouri Senate and House are standing behind the ballot language they prepared, and are asking Koster to provide a stout defense of their work.
The religious liberty amendment was approved during the recent legislative session with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. Like all proposed amendments to the Missouri Constitution, it must be decided by Missouri voters at the polls. The issue will be on the statewide ballot in the August or November election next year.
The ACLU has filed suit in Cole County Circuit Court, objecting to the ballot language which the General Assembly developed, which is highly objective and straightforward. The ACLU is asking the court to substitute a ballot description they have recommended, which is inaccurate and distorted. In the alternative, the ACLU is asking the judge to prohibit the Secretary of State from placing the issue on the ballot.
The leaders of the Missouri Senate sent a letter in mid-July to Attorney General Koster urging him to do all within his power to ensure that Missouri citizens have the opportunity to vote on the religious liberty amendment.
"This letter is a formal request...for your strong defense of House Joint Resolution 2...and the ballot language prepared by our General Assembly. This measure asserts prayer to be in the realm of free speech for all persons," the correspondence reads.
"We stand by the ballot language as a fair and accurate representation of the underlying legislation. We urge you to dedicate the resources of your office necessary for full and thorough defense of the HJR2 ballot language," the letter continues. The correspondence was signed by Senate President Pro Tem Robert Mayer, Majority Floor Leader Tom Dempsey, and Assistant Majority Floor Leader Jack Goodman.
Leaders in the Missouri House are sending a similar letter to the Attorney General requesting that he faithfully perform the duties of his office. It reads in part: "House Joint Resolution 2 further protects the rights of the citizens of Missouri to practice their faith without undue hindrance by the state...You have our support as your office works to guarantee Missourians the opportunity to further their religious protections in the Missouri Constitution."
The House letter was signed by House Speaker Steve Tilley, Speaker Pro Tem Shane Schoeller, Majority Floor Leader Tim Jones, Assistant Majority Leader Jeanie Riddle, Majority Whip Jason Smith, Majority Caucus Chair Shelley Keeney, and Majority Caucus Secretary Sue Allen.
Attorney General Koster has responded quickly, saying that his office takes the challenge seriously, and that he has assigned Solicitor General Jim Layton to the case. "Jim Layton is our most senior appellate litigator and has successfully argued many of the most significant cases that have faced this state in the last decade, including, but not limited to, the challenge against Missouri's school foundation formula. There is no attorney in either the public or private sector in whom I have greater faith in matters of this nature."
The religious liberty amendment would further define in our state constitution the constitutional guarantees of religious free speech. It would protect the right of schoolchildren to pray on a voluntary basis in Missouri schools. It would ensure that all citizens have the right to express their faith in public settings and on public property. It would safeguard the right of government bodies to offer invocations before government meetings.
The ACLU seems most agitated over a religious conscience clause in the constitutional amendment. That provision states that "no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs." A related provision says that "students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work."
State law requires that the ballot summary voters read when they cast their vote "be a true and impartial statement of the purposes of the proposed measure." The language chosen by the Legislature cannot be "intentionally argumentative nor likely to create prejudice either for or against the proposed measure." The religious liberty amendment ballot summary is the most non-prejudicial ballot language voters will have seen in a statewide election in several years.
We applaud our state officials for taking a strong stand in support of the religious values and constitutional freedoms of Missourians. Attacks on the free exercise of religion continue to accelerate across our nation, and this constitutional amendment comes none too soon.