Fundamentalist America wants its children to feel comfortable praying in public schools. Since the US Supreme Court’s 1963 Schempp verdict, many religious conservatives have complained that God has been kicked out of public schools.
As Steven Green’s recent book has described, the historical reality is more complicated. And, as I have argued elsewhere, to understand these questions, we can’t start in the 1960s, we need to look at the battles of the 1920s.
But that does not stop some conservatives from pressing the issue. In a recent wrinkle, Missouri State Legislature Representative Mike McGhee has succeeded in presenting a Constitutional amendment to the voters of Missouri. On August 7th, voters will have see the following questions on a special ballot:
“Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to 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 shall display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.”
Opponents note with considerable justification that this amendment will not actually do anything. Speaking to the Joplin Globe, an official of the state school administration insisted students already have the right to pray. And C.J. Huff, superintendent of Joplin schools, told the Globe,
“If it passes, it isn’t really going to make a difference in our schools. Students already have rights for volunteer prayer in school. It happens. I think the misperception is that it (prayer) doesn’t happen (in schools).”
But to the amendment’s supporters, the symbolism is intensely important. As Representative Jeff Grisamore told OzarksFirst,
“This (legislation) is one of the most important pieces of legislation…that we will pass this year, because it is fundamental to protecting the rights of Missourians to pray and express their faith and at the same time, protect Missourians from being coerced or compelled in a way that would violate their faith.”
Missouri politicians seem keenly aware of this symbolic importance. According to the Lebanon Daily Record, the proposed amendment passed unanimously in the state Senate and triumphed 126-30 in the state House.
The constitutional issue seems fairly clear. This amendment, if successful, will clarify a right that public school students already enjoy. The big question is the political issue. Clearly, the elected representatives of the great State of Missouri find the bill politically invulnerable. Will the voters of Missouri agree?