ACLU files challenge to prayer amendment
Less than 24 hours after it was overwhelmingly approved by Missouri voters, the so-called “prayer” amendment has been challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a suit filed Wednesday on behalf of two prisoners in the state correctional system, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri said the amendment infringes on the inmates’ religious freedom, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and stigmatizes inmates by singling them out. The final portion of the amendment mentions prisoners specifically, saying that nothing in the amendment is designed to expand their rights.
Explaining the suit, the ACLU compared how prisoners have religious rights that stem from both the federal and the state constitutions.
“Think of the U.S. Constitution, which provides basic religious rights, as a cake, and the Missouri Constitution, which provided additional religious liberties, as the icing,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU-EM, in a statement.
“The newly passed Amendment 2 will strip the icing off that cake for prisoners and doing so perpetuates the stereotype that prisoners are inferior and less worthy of the protection of their right to prayer under the Missouri Constitution.”
Added Brenda Jones, the group’s executive director:
“Not only is it unconstitutional to take away the rights of one class of citizens, but it is an affront to our American values of religious liberty.”
The lawsuit traces the history of guarantees of religious freedom throughout various versions of the Missouri Constitution, including the most recent one in 1945. Then it quotes at length from Amendment 2, which was approved by voters on Tuesday with nearly 83 percent of the vote and would take effect in September. The final clause reads:
“But this section shall not be construed to expand the rights of prisoners in state or local custody beyond those afforded by the laws of the United States, excuse acts of licentiousness, nor to justify practices inconsistent with the good order, peace or safety of the state, or with the rights of others.”
The suit says that the two plaintiffs, and by extension all Missouri prisoners, “will be chilled in their religious expression if deprived of the broader protection of religious liberty afforded by the Missouri Constitution because, without the further layer of security for religious liberty, they fear lesser protection of their rights.”
It says that the amendment would inhibit inmates’ practice and exercise of their religion and make it more difficult for them than for other groups to take advantage of the state constitution’s safeguards of religious liberty.
The suit further states that the amendment’s wording “stigmatizes prisoners, a disfavored group, as innately inferior and, therefore, less worthy of the protection of the Missouri Constitution,” saying that such treatment “perpetuates archaic and stereotypic notions of prisoners.” It also says that the section involving prisoners “does not rationally or actually advance a neutral and legitimate government interest.”
Finally, it says neither voters who approved the amendment nor lawmakers who put it on the ballot “possess expert judgment about legitimate penological objectives or how to achieve them.”
The suit seeks to have either the section on prisoners, or the entire amendment, struck down.
The Missouri attorney general's office declined to comment on the lawsuit. A request for comment from the Department of Corrections was not immediately returned.
Despite the overwhelming approval of the amendment in Tuesday’s balloting, its wording had drawn protests from opponents who said it did not add any more protections of religious freedom than already provided in the state constitution and would be sure to prompt legal challenges.
A suit by the ACLU on the ballot language of the amendment, alleging it did not properly explain the effect on students and prisoners, failed in the courts before Tuesday’s balloting.