Missouri Ballot Initiative on Religion Amendment is Misleading, Says ACLU

July 7, 2011 5:12 pm

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Description of Ballot Measure Fails to Mention Amendment Would Revoke Fundamental Rights

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri and the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri filed today a lawsuit challenging the misleading description of a constitutional amendment that will be put to a vote in November 2012 and which would deny religious protections to prisoners and would allow students to refuse to participate in any assignment that they claim violates their religious beliefs.

“The people of Missouri have a right to know exactly what they’re voting for,” said Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “The disingenuous way this amendment is described on the ballot is clearly meant to persuade the voters to approve it without knowing what it really says.”

The description of the amendment on the ballot states that the amendment will ensure that the right of Missouri citizens to express their religious beliefs shall not be infringed, that school children have the right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools and that all public schools will be required to display the Bill of Rights. It does not mention provisions in the amendment’s text that would “remove any state constitutional protection of religious expression or liberty for prisoners in state or local custody” and require that “no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.”

“It is extremely concerning that the summary of the amendment would fail to warn voters that religious freedoms would actually be denied to a significant number of people and leaves out components that would make many voters pause before approving,” said Doug Bonney, legal director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri.

The lawsuit is being filed on behalf of two plaintiffs – a minister in the United Methodist Church who is a spiritual advisor to inmates in the Missouri Department of Corrections and an associate professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The plaintiffs are concerned that voters will not realize that the amendment will take away the rights of prisoners to practice their faith while incarcerated, and may compromise the education of students who opt out of assignments by depriving them of the opportunity to learn about cultures and concepts that they may personally disagree with, but are necessary to know about as part of a comprehensive, quality education.

“Both the Missouri and federal Constitutions already protect the fundamental right of religious expression,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “What voters may not realize when approving this amendment is that it would actually strip away existing rights.”

Lawyers on the case include Rothert and Grant Doty of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, Bonney of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri and Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

The petition can be seen at: www.aclu.org/religion-belief/coburn-v-mayer-petition

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