Everyone interested in what we’re calling Fundamentalist America should be following Missouri’s Amendment 2. The debate about the nature of religion in public schools and institutions gets right to the heart of many culture-war controversies. But it appears that the amendment might pack a much heavier culture-war punch than it seems to.
There are plenty of places to go to catch up on the story. ILYBYGTH has introduced the upcoming vote, discussed the results, and noted Catholic Bishops’ support for Amendment 2. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch offered a very helpful introduction in late July. For anyone interested in the viewpoint of amendment supporters, a Baptist congregation in Odessa published an hour-long video of Representative Mike McGhee explaining his vision for the amendment, frankly and openly.
For those who don’t like clicking on stuff, here’s the story in a nutshell: On August 7, 2012, Missouri voters overwhelmingly (83%) approved an amendment to their state constitution. The amendment was promoted as a school-prayer amendment. Supporters such as legislative sponsor Mike McGhee called it a clarification of the rights of religious people to pray in public, so long as their prayers did not disturb others. McGhee claimed that such rights are often disrespected. Opponents such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State insisted it was at best unnecessary, since such rights are already protected in the US Constitution. At worst, opponents insist, this amendment threatens to undermine the barrier between church and state.
Given a closer look, however, this amendment does much more than clarify students’ rights to pray in public schools. It does that, but the amended Constitution now includes two other rights for students. These new rights go far, far beyond protecting the rights of public schoolchildren to pray quietly. The new rights satisfy the long-standing desires of important constituencies in Fundamentalist America. For all parents who have worried that their children might be taught unwholesome moral, sexual, or religious lessons in public schools, the Missouri Constitution now offers an easy escape route.
The first added phrase, “students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work,” opens the door for conservative families to include their beliefs in all parts of the school curriculum. For example, creationist parents and students could now use their beliefs to answer questions about evolution. This has long been a sticking point for creationists. Consider the words of Avis Hill, a pastor from Kanawha County, West Virginia. Hill rose to national prominence in 1974 when assumed a leadership role in a controversy over adopted textbooks.
Hill told interviewers that his daughter was given a failing grade for her report on evolution. According to the Reverend Hill, the young Miss Hill, fifth grader, told her teacher, “‘Mrs. So-and-So’—whose name I’ll not use—‘I’ll not give that report, and I’ll not read that book in class.’ She said, ‘I have a book I will read,’ and she opened her Bible—and I did not coach her because it didn’t bother me that much at that time—she opened her Bible, and she began in Genesis 1, ‘In the beginning God—‘ and the teacher failed her.” [Interviewed by James Moffett, included in Moffett’s Storm in the Mountains (Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), pg. 90].
This sentiment echoes throughout Fundamentalist America. Fear that students will be forced to learn evolution, or about the use of condoms, or about the moral ambiguities of modern life have long dominated conservative rhetoric about public education. Missouri’s new Constitution fixes that perceived problem.
The second telling phrase in the new Constitution underlines the point. “No student,” the amendment reads, “shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.” The implications are clear. Sex ed, evolution ed, “situation ethics,” all have loomed large in the imagination of Fundamentalist America for generations. This amendment guarantees that no student shall be forced to learn about such things.
Missouri’s amendment is not the only place to find this sentiment in political action. New Hampshire’s state legislature recently passed a very similar law. As I argue in my 1920s book, conservatives have struggled to protect conservative religious students from public-school curricula since the 1920s. In the last generation, the fight in Hawkins County, Tennessee, might have generated the most attention. In that case, conservative religious parents ultimately lost their lawsuit against the school board. Parents had claimed that anti-religious messages in school textbooks forced their children to learn messages inimical to their religious beliefs. In 1987, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit disagreed.
Lawmakers in New Hampshire and now voters in Missouri found a way around this legal precedent. However, it is not clear that Missouri voters knew just what they were voting for. Consider the wording of the ballot measure:
“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.
“It is estimated this proposal will result in little or no costs or savings for state and local governmental entities.
“Fair Ballot Language:
“A “yes” vote will amend the Missouri Constitution to provide that neither the state nor political subdivisions shall establish any official religion. The amendment further provides that a citizen’s right to express their religious beliefs regardless of their religion shall not be infringed and that the right to worship includes prayer in private or public settings, on government premises, on public property, and in all public schools. The amendment also requires public schools to display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.
“A “no” vote will not change the current constitutional provisions protecting freedom of religion.
“If passed, this measure will have no impact on taxes.”
No mention of creationism, sex ed, condoms in schools, or other implications. Nothing about guaranteeing students the right to opt out of any instruction they deem pernicious. The ballot measure emphasized the amendment as a clarification of students’ rights to pray. Yet the amendment itself makes the other meanings crystal clear.
Missouri voters approved the amendment by overwhelming margins. But it appears that the implications of that ‘yes’ vote might not have been entirely apparent. So what DO Missouri voters want?