Federal Judge Rejects Challenge to Missouri Prayer Amendment
A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Missouri's new religious liberty amendment. U.S District Judge Howard Sachs has ruled against a challenge filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two inmates incarcerated in state prisons.
The religious liberty language, placed on the ballot as Amendment 2, was approved by Missouri voters last August by a resounding vote of 83 to 17 percent. Commonly referred to as the Missouri Prayer Amendment, the measure spells out in considerable detail the free exercise rights of Missouri citizens and schoolchildren.
The lawsuit challenged a provision that declared that the new amendment did not expand the rights of prisoners beyond those afforded by the laws of the United States. The ACLU had contended that this section would somehow diminish the religious freedoms previously held by individuals incarcerated in Missouri prisons.
Judge Sachs concluded that the plaintiffs failed to specify any "instance where the amendment takes away a specific right," or any particular program or condition that would be impacted by the amendment. Sachs agreed with the the defense of the State of Missouri that the case was a "moot dispute over abstract, hypothetical concepts."
"No practical change in the law can be supposed, and plaintiffs fail to suggest hypothetical situations where the results would be altered by the new amendment," Judge Sachs wrote. "Without a plausible claim of actual prejudice, justification becomes unnecessary."
The ACLU has unsuccessfully argued that the Missouri Constitution prior to Amendment 2 provided more expansive religious liberties than those articulated in the First Amendment to the federal constitution. Judge Sachs agreed with state courts that no such evidence exists.
Last summer the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals determined that Amendment 2 would "simply make [prisoners] rights coextensive with federal law." Judge Lisa White Hardwick wrote that it was "purely conjectural" that existing rights under the Missouri Constitution would be somehow affected.
The ruling by Judge Sachs is a huge victory for religious liberty advocates in Missouri. The ACLU has not chosen to file a legal challenge to the substantive provisions of Amendment 2. That means that all the religious freedom guarantees outlined in Amendment 2 will continue to stand and remain in full force and effect.
The Missouri Prayer Amendment ensures that students have the right to pray on a voluntary basis in the public schools, and furthermore have the right to the free exercise of religious expression without interference. Students may also share their beliefs about religion in school assignments free from any discrimination based on the religious content of their work.
The religious freedom amendment also protects the conscience rights of students with religious convictions. Amendment 2 states that "no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate their religious beliefs."
Amendment 2 assures that Missouri citizens and elected officials have the right to pray individually or corporately in private and public settings. This includes the right to pray on government premises and public property, provided that such religious expression complies within "the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances."
The religious liberty amendment also guarantees the right of the Missouri Legislature and local governments to offer invocations before their meetings. The General Assembly and the governing bodies of local political subdivisions may continue a common practice of inviting minsters and clergypersons to offer such invocations.
The ACLU recently abandoned the major elements of another lawsuit challenging the practice of governmental invocations. The ACLU had filed suit in federal district court seeking to enjoin the County Commission in Franklin County from praying before their meetings.
Attorneys for the ACLU withdrew the portion of their lawsuit challenging the County Commission's policy of inviting ministers from the community to offer invocations. They are still challenging a prior practice of the Commission in which county commissioners offered the prayers themselves.
The Missouri Family Policy Council strongly promoted the Missouri Prayer Amendment, and in large part wrote the language of the amendment. We thank God for these recent victories in our judicial system that help preserve the free exercise rights of Missouri citizens and families.
We are grateful to Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and Assistant Attorney General Joanna Trachtenberg for their diligent defense of Amendment 2 and all of its key provisions. Time will tell whether the ACLU chooses to pursue a long-shot legal appeal of Judge Sachs' decision.