JEFFERSON CITY – Among the many bills before the Missouri General Assembly in 2011, there are at least three areas of concern which are being closely monitored by the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC): life and quality of life, education reform, and religious liberty.
According to Kerry Messer, lobbyist for the MBC, there is a short list of prolife bills being proposed in the current session. They range from sex-selection abortions to late-term abortions.
“We can expect some pro-life advancements, but maybe not as significant as last year’s. “We’ve made some great strides over the last eight years or so but still expect to see advancement on the pro-life front. We do have some exciting leadership in Jeff City,” he said.
Missouri already bans abortion of infants beyond 20 weeks of gestation if they are considered “viable,” that is, they can survive outside the womb, with or without medical assistance.
However, exceptions can be made if it is determined that the baby cannot survive outside the womb or that the pregnancy endangers the life or health of the mother.
Senate Bill 65, sponsored by Sen. Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter and a member of First Baptist Church, Dexter, tightens up the definition of “health” by specifying that the exception would only apply “when continuation of the pregnancy will create a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.” Such a diagnosis would have to be verified by two doctors. Pro-life advocates are working toward passage of this provision.
In the area of quality of life, legislators are addressing the problem of human trafficking. “A lot of Missouri Baptists don’t realize there’s human traffickin, predominantly in relationship to the sex industry,” Messer said. “People see it on CSI and hear about it in the media but don’t realize it is a problem across the country and it’s in Missouri.”
Messer said some states have dealt with the problem in such a way that has made it politically correct rather than bringing about solutions.
“Some states have gone to such things as putting a minimum age on prostitution. Are they decriminalizing certain forms by limiting it at certain ages?” he asked.
“Education reform is a hot topic in this year’s legislature,” Messer said.
“A lot of people, when they hear the terminology of education reform, their minds go to progressive liberal reforms coming out of Washington, DC. They’re wondering what’s happening in Missouri.”
However, he said, folks in Missouri are referring to allowing parents and students to cross school lines instead of being stuck in a failing school district with no choice. In July of last year, the Missouri Supreme Court handed down a decision which said that a student in a failing school district can enroll in an adjoining school district, and the failing district has to forward the tuition to the new district.
Proposed legislation would offer other solutions as well. The establishment of charter schools outside the major cities, for instance, is an option.
Messer said there is also a push on to re-fund the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program (MoVIP), from which the governor cut funding last year. This program would allow a child to be educated at home by computer, a less expensive alternative.
One proposal involving religious liberty and yet to be filed is one that would change the classification of water wells belonging to rural churches. The legislation has failed several times in the past, but Messer said it has gained strong support in both houses of the Legislature.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources currently classifies small rural church wells as “transient, noncommunity public water systems.”
These are wells that use less than 15,000 gallons of water per month and serve 25 people or more for 60 days a year.
The classification includes restaurants, is more stringent than that applied to “multi-housing units” (apartment buildings), and would potentially cost tens of thousands in construction costs for churches that use very little water.
Legislators are hoping to have such churches come under the same requirements as apartment buildings.
One of the top priorities for Messer is lobbying to prevent the Missouri Department of Revenue (DOR) from applying the state’s Athletes and Entertainers Tax to churches.
“This policy was adopted in the 1990s and targeted athletes and big-name performers who receive six-figure appearance fees and leave the state with revenues from Missouri. This is a recovery tax of 2 percent, based on what you pay that entertainer,” Messer explained. As an example, he said, the DOR has determined that a small church would be required to pay the tax if it brought in a quartet, paid them $300, and they drove home to Arkansas afterward.
“Missouri churches don’t even know about the tax,” he said. “We hope to exempt churches, and possibly nonprofits, unless proceeds go into private hands.”
Bills are still being filed related to these and other issues. The last day for filing new legislation in the Senate is March 1. While the House has no deadline, the earlier a bill is filed, the more likely it is to be heard.
BARBARA SHOUN / contributing writer