By Kellie Kotraba, Religion News Service, & BJC Staff Reports

One day after voters in Missouri overwhelmingly approved a “right to pray” amendment to the state’s constitution, a lawsuit was filed challenging the measure’s effect on prisoners’ rights.

More than 80 percent of voters approved Amendment 2 on Aug. 7, which supporters said would protect religious expression, but others warned it could harm religious liberty. The Baptist Joint Committee and other groups opposed the amendment over concerns about its necessity and legality.

The language on the ballot described the amendment as protecting the rights of citizens to express their religious beliefs — including the right to pray in “public settings” — and the rights of children to pray and acknowledge God in schools. The full text of the amendment includes additional provisions, including one allowing students to be exempt from classroom activities that violate their religious beliefs.

State Rep. Mike McGhee, a Republican who sponsored the amendment, said it would remind people about their religious freedoms, such as reading religious books at school. “It’s OK to bring your Bible to study hall,” he said.

It is not clear how students’ exemption from classroom activities will be regulated. McGhee has said it could vary by age group, and individual school districts could create their own policies on the matter.

The amendment was backed by Missouri’s four Catholic bishops and the Missouri Baptist Convention. The Baptist Joint Committee and the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri were among the groups opposing it.

Critics argued the amendment is redundant — the U.S. Constitution already protects religious freedom. And some warned that it could spark countless lawsuits and bring unintended consequences.

The day after the vote, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri (ACLU-EM) filed a lawsuit challenging the section of the amendment which limits prisoners’ rights to those “afforded by the laws of the United States.” The ACLU-EM said the provision takes away prisoners’ rights established in 1820 when the Missouri Constitution was adopted.

“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,” said Brenda L. Jones, executive director of the ACLU-EM, in a press release.

In a letter sent to BJC supporters in Missouri, Executive Director Brent Walker said the amendment would authorize activity that harms religious freedom by allowing state-sponsored religious activity in violation of the federal constitution. “Limitations on government-sponsored prayer are a key component of ‘no establishment’ and protect individual freedom of conscience by ensuring all citizens may freely participate in the democratic process without regard to one’s religious beliefs,” Walker wrote.

“It opens up a can of worms most people don’t want to open,” said Greg Grenke, a 22-year-old voter from Columbia who voted against the amendment. He said he is not against prayer — he just does not think the amendment was necessary.

Pediatrician Ellen Thomas, 48, said the amendment seemed like propaganda.

“I really just think it’s designed to stir up angry sentiment.” She added, “There’s no infringement on people’s right to pray as it is.”

Kathy Rowland, 55, of Columbia, Mo., said the amendment seemed “well-intentioned,” but unnecessary.

Still, the amendment garnered enough support to pass by a 7-1 margin.

“I was glad to see it,” said Margie Cravens, 87, as she left her Columbia polling place. “And we need prayer now more than ever before.”

From the September 2012 Report from the Capital. Click here for the next article.