Does Law Protect Prayer Or Exclude Non-Christians?

Advocates say a public prayer amendment to the Missouri state constitution will strengthen the right to pray in public. But critics say it'll marginalize non-Christians. Guest host Jacki Lyden talks with Missouri State Rep. Mike McGhee who sponsored the initiative, and the Anti-Defamation League's Karen Aroesty, who opposes it.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And now, for another story about the politics of faith. A controversial amendment to Missouri state Constitution passed last week with an overwhelming 83 percent of voter support. Amendment Two, commonly known as the Prayer Amendment, says that it strengthens protections for people who want to pray in public. Supporters say it clarifies existing constitutional protections. Opponents worry that the amendment is unnecessary and that the language dealing with schools could undermine education, allowing students to opt out of lessons that they disagree with on the basis of faith.

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, seventh grade teacher Elizabeth Petersen shared her concerns.

ELIZABETH PETERSEN: I think it's important that kids understand. If you opt out of this, here's what you're missing. I mean, in biology, because evolution is such a major understanding, if you don't take biology, maybe you don't graduate. So I keep thinking, why would the legislature intentionally handicap kids? I mean, it's bad legislation.

LYDEN: Also, among the amendment's critics are those who worry that it will marginalize people of faiths other than Christianity. Joining us to discuss the controversy are Missouri State Representative Mike McGhee, who sponsored the amendment, and Karen Aroesty. She's the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, the civil rights organization founded to fight anti-semitism.

Welcome to the program, both of you.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE MCGHEE: Thank you. Good to be here.

KAREN AROESTY: Good to be here.

LYDEN: Representative McGhee, let's start with you. You said that this initiative will provide protection to all Missourians. Why did you think it was necessary?

MCGHEE: Well, because it was necessary, a teacher on a public school ground - a student was swinging on a swing in kindergarten and singing "Jesus Loves Me" and a teacher went up to him and says, hey, you can't sing that. You need to change that to "Mommy Loves Me." And, in a classroom, a student took a bible to study hall and a teacher came up and says you can't bring the bible to study hall. One opportunity was a student just taking a bible onto a school bus and the bus driver says you can't bring the bible on the school bus.

We've had numerous people testify that a student would get their lunch in a lunch line and go over to sit down at a table by themselves, bow their head and someone would come over and tap him on the shoulder and say, that's not appropriate here in school.

LYDEN: So...

MCGHEE: We had - ACLU in Franklin County says that the city council can't pray, so that's why it's necessary. Those reasons.

LYDEN: So you've added 400 words to the state Constitution, but actually, everything that you just listed - isn't that already protected under Freedom of Speech and Religion?

MCGHEE: It would be. Then why would those teachers or why would those - the ACLU come in and file suit against Franklin County?

LYDEN: So you say this is a clarification. You've amended the Constitution to clarify.

MCGHEE: Well, what we're doing is changing the Missouri law to match the U.S. Constitution and actually getting the word out to those people in Missouri that you can pray as long as you don't disturb someone else.

LYDEN: Karen Aroesty, your organization, the ADL, Anti-Defamation League, says that - takes the position that the amendment actually has the opposite effect, that it has a chilling effect on people who aren't in the majority faith. What do you think?

AROESTY: One of the things that Mr. McGhee raises about Franklin County is a perfect example. It's not that Franklin County folks can't pray. They certainly can. They can certainly pray as a part of any activities they do. What the Franklin County Council cannot do is start its meetings with formal prayer to Jesus Christ because that is something that could violate and very well may violate the establishment clause. That's why the ACLU filed the lawsuit.

The idea is not that people can't be religious. It's that the Constitution wants to protect religion by allowing it to thrive in places where everybody can be accepted by it. If you have Franklin County Council members praying to Jesus, it certainly shows a certain approach to religion which is not inclusive, which could be discriminatory and, really, which is not what governing is supposed to be about.

LYDEN: The ADL also said that the vote last week on Tuesday wasn't representative. Could you explain the position there?

AROESTY: It's very hard to talk about the vote because, certainly, a lot of folks were turned out by the evangelical churches to support this. At the same time, the ballot summary was so spectacularly misleading, it didn't actually give people a sense of what was contained in the legislation.

So what people read when they went to vote was something along the lines of, shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure the right of Missouri citizens to express their religious beliefs shall not be infringed and that school children can pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in school. Well, people would read that and say, well, gee, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with that. Why wouldn't I vote for it?

And that's probably how the bill ended up passing significantly. It just wasn't a fair representation in the language of what was contained in the initiative itself.

LYDEN: Representative Mike McGhee, one of your legislative colleagues who supported the amendment, Susan Allen, called this, quote, "a Christian-based initiative," unquote, and said that it wouldn't provide religious rights for Muslims. How do you respond to that? Are you concerned about rhetoric surrounding the amendment that gives the impression that it's about exclusion?

MCGHEE: Absolutely not. This is actually a good thing for the Muslims and the Buddhists and all of the other religions. It gives them the same opportunity that it would give to the Christians. We're not singling out anyone. I suppose if, at Franklin County, they wanted to pray to Buddha that maybe that might have been more acceptable, but because they decided to pray to Jesus because that's who they wanted to hear them, then all of a sudden, it is unacceptable. That's the difference.

AROESTY: I apologize for interrupting. I think the great difficulty here is generally in the religious approach. I think one of the things we've seen in Missouri since the early part of 2000 is a real increase in what I call faith-based policymaking, the use of religion in order to advance Christianity as part of school policy adoption issues, vouchers, judicial activity, stem cell research, you name it. Religion has come into it.

LYDEN: All right. Well, we'll get to that in just a moment. Let's talk about schools next, but first of all, I just want to say that, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden and we're talking about Missouri's new Protect Our Prayers Amendment. Our guests are the amendment sponsor, Missouri State Representative Mike McGhee and amendment opponent, Karen Aroesty of the Anti-Defamation League.

Karen, what problems do you think the amendment presents for educators and students?

AROESTY: The language of the initiative, in two parts, says that students may express their belief about religion in written or oral assignments, free from discrimination, based upon the religious content of their work. That's one piece of it.

But then it says that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs. And that's an extraordinary statement. When Mr. McGhee says that this language brings the Missouri Constitution in line with the Federal Constitution, that's simply not accurate.

And I think that the great concern is - what does that mean? It's going to require litigation. The idea that students could decide that they are not going to participate in health classes or in math.

MCGHEE: What if there were a teacher who decided to say, well, we're giving a class here in the university and you're going to be a social worker. Now, you're going to be dealing with homosexuals in social work. Therefore, why don't, this weekend, you all have a - this class needs to have a homosexual encounter.

LYDEN: Well, let me say that - Mr. McGee, rather than perhaps - that seems an extreme example. What if a student said, listen, I don't believe in evolution, a common position in a number of dimensions of the Christian faith. Therefore, I will not learn it. Does that, you think, present a problem?

MCGHEE: Oh, no. No. That's not what the bill is all about at all.

LYDEN: But let me just ask you both. Do either of you see litigation in the future of this new law?

AROESTY: There already is. There's a lawsuit's filed with the ACLU and there's a section of the bill that refers to the religious rights of prisoners under Missouri law and I think some prisoners have already filed cases about that aspect of it. I think there will, no doubt, be school-based cases, not only from teachers trying to figure out what this means, but from students who will try and test it.

There's also an aspect of the initiative that talks about clergypersons, ministers and other individuals having the privilege to offer invocations or other prayers at meetings or sessions of the general assembly (unintelligible)...

MCGHEE: I disagree. I think...

LYDEN: Mr. McGhee, do you...

AROESTY: That's going to test it, as well.

MCGHEE: Of this, there would be less legislation filed or less lawsuits filed because we have clarified this and now people know what they can do, so why file a lawsuit? My student can sing "Jesus Loves Me" on the playground and my student can take a bible to study hall.

AROESTY: And, prior to this bill...

MCGHEE: (Unintelligible).

AROESTY: ...Mr. McGhee, your students could do all of those things. There's simply nothing unique about...

MCGHEE: Well, they should have been able to, but they weren't able to.

AROESTY: A legislation that is going to change that.

LYDEN: All right. Thank you both very, very much.

MCGHEE: Well...

LYDEN: Karen Aroesty is a regional director for the Anti-Defamation League. Michael McGhee is a representative of the Missouri State Legislature and he sponsored the Protect Our Prayers Amendment. And we want to thank you both for being here.

AROESTY: Thanks, Jacki.

MCGHEE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Just ahead, "Stars Earn Stripes" is a new reality show featuring celebrities playing soldier; firing weapons, storming buildings and dodging explosives. The stars include Alaska's former first dude, Todd Palin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STARS EARN STRIPES")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Palin's on a solo mission here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He is. He's just straight out Rambo. Next time I go to war, I want Todd Palin on my side.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Gee.

LYDEN: But the show itself has come under fire for glorifying war. The Barber Shop guys go to the frontlines of that debate ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Deborah Ellis traveled to Afghanistan to ask a simple question: How do Afghanistan's women and children see their future?

DEBORAH ELLIS: These are great, courageous, amazing kids doing really incredible things with really difficult circumstances.

LYDEN: Ellis discusses their stories in her recently released book, "Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-Ending War," next time on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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