JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri voters on Tuesday approved a state constitutional amendment that specifically allows public prayer and permits students to avoid assignments that violate their religious beliefs.
The statewide ballot measure says people can pray in public or private so long as they do not disturb the peace, and gives specific permission for a prayer before government meetings. The measure also states that students can express their beliefs and cannot be compelled to participate in school assignments or educational presentations that violate their religion. In addition, public schools will be required to post the text of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Supporters argued the prayer measure will protect students and ensure that prayer is given the same protections as other types of speech. Rep. Mike McGhee, who sponsored the measure in the Legislature, said it ensures everyone knows praying is OK.
The prayer amendment was supported by several religious and conservative organizations, and four Roman Catholic bishops in Missouri issued a joint statement urging Catholics to vote for it.
Missouri's Republican-controlled Legislature has debated measures dealing with prayer for the past several years. Last year, lawmakers overwhelmingly approved referring the issue to this year's ballot, and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon decided to hold the public vote during the August primary rather than waiting for the November general election.
The Missouri Constitution currently says: "All men have a natural and indefensible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; that no human authority can control or interfere with the rights of conscience." The constitution also says people cannot be declared ineligible for public office or kept from testifying or serving on a jury based upon their religious beliefs.
Several groups that oppose the prayer measure formed the Missouri Coalition to Keep Politics Out of Religion, but opposition before Election Day was fairly limited. Critics argued the proposed changes could create confusion about what is allowed and trigger lawsuits to determine how to apply the new provisions.