The ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday challenging an amendment to the state's constitution it contends violates the religious rights of prison inmates.
On Tuesday, Missourians overwhelmingly approved the so-called "right to pray" amendment. The measure says the state can't infringe upon public expressions of religious beliefs, that students have the right to voluntarily pray in schools and that all public schools must display a copy of the Bill of Rights.
Not included in the summary that appeared on the ballot, however, was a provision stating the amendment "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."
Beginning with its first Constitution in 1820, Missouri has provided additional protections for religious liberty beyond federal law, the lawsuit contends. Over the years state courts have agreed.
The amendment approved by voters takes away an existing right from only one group — prisoners— "without a legitimate reason," the lawsuit says. That constitutes a violation of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause and the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom.
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," the lawsuit says.
It goes on to say that the prayer amendment "stigmatizes prisoners, a disfavored group, as innately inferior and, therefore, less worthy of the protection of the Missouri Constitution."
“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 Jones, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two inmates against the director Missouri's Department of Corrections, George Lombardi. A spokesman for the department declined to comment on pending litigation.
Critics of the amendment, including the ACLU, warned that it would lead to a flood of lawsuits, particularly a section that said no student "shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs."
That provision was also left out of the ballot summary.