Bearden seeks to clarify religious freedoms
JEFFERSON CITY – Children have the right to pray over their school lunches, but many people in positions of authority err on the side of restricting religious freedoms for fear of becoming embroiled in lawsuits.
That is why Rep. Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, has introduced House Joint Resolution 19 (HJR19) in the current legislative session calling for a change in the Missouri Constitution. The resolution, which has already received approval by the House, must receive approval by the Senate before being placed on the ballot in November.
HJR19 would accomplish two things – it would clarify the wording regarding religious freedom and it would bring the state constitution in line with the federal constitution.
“I don’t believe there is necessarily an outright ‘you-can’t-pray-in-school’ campaign, but people in authority discourage it because they’re afraid of what might happen, particularly regarding lawsuits,” said Bearden, a member of First Baptist Church, Harvester, St. Charles, and the No. 2 ranking member of House as Speaker Pro Tem.
“People hear about separation of church and state and believe we have no right to have any religious observances in the public arena, but religious freedoms don’t stop at the schoolhouse door…or any door.”
The Missouri Constitution already spells out several religious freedom rights contained therein. The new wording would add the following concepts:
• a citizen’s right to pray and worship in all public areas, including schools, as long as the activities are voluntary and subject to the same rules and regulations that apply to all other types of speech;
• a citizen’s right to choose any religion or no religion at all by prohibiting both the establishment of an official state religion and any state coercion or endorsement of religion through practices such as composing official state prayers; and
• public schools receiving state funds to be required to display the text of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in a conspicuous and legible manner.
Kerry Messer, lobbyist for the Missouri Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission, was one of those who testified in favor of the resolution. He affirms that it will not expand any rights but will clarify those that already exist.
“Children do have a right to pray and that right would not be infringed. The First Amendment applies to children as well as adults,” he said.
Messer indicated he has heard reports of kids not being allowed to bow their heads in the lunchroom and children not being allowed to sing on the playground.
In one instance, he heard that a child was not allowed to get on a school bus because he was waiting at the bus stop with a Bible in hand and the driver was afraid of getting into trouble if he allowed the Bible on the bus.
Bearden said that the misconceptions need to be made clear. “I think it’s important our Missouri Constitution be updated to reflect what the framers of the U.S. Constitution had in mind. Religious freedoms are just that; they’re freedoms.”
Bearden introduced the same legislation last year. While it passed the House, it didn’t get through the Senate. He and Messer both have hopes that it will pass both houses this session and be adopted by voters in November as part of the state constitution.