Religion Remains Point of Contention in Missouri\'s Legislature

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JEFFERSON CITY -In Missouri's House, the worlds of politics and religion often collide.

"That's where this bill comes from. It doesn't come from me, it doesn't come from some special interest," said Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, while debating a bill passionately on the floor. "It comes from the inalienable belief that all rights come from the creator."

The bill, which Jones sponsored, would allow medical workers to opt out of performing procedures that would violate their religious or moral beliefs, such as abortions.

The Missouri legislature moves bills like these several times during legislative sessions. It's these kinds of measures that make the age old debate about the separation of church and state even more relevant in today's political arena.

In Missouri's Republican-controlled legislature, Christian-sponsored legislation flows almost freely. Eleven Democrats joined the 105 Republicans that voted for Jones' bill as it sailed easily through the House.

While Jones said he sponsored the bill because of his deep religious faith, other representatives took issue with that. St. Louis County Rep. Stacey Newman was one of the 40 Democrats who voted against the measure.

"This bill discriminates against women," Newman said during House debate over the legislation. "This bill does not come from God. It comes from a legislator."

Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis City, joined her in voting nay.

"From a religious perspective you can believe that life begins wherever they want to believe it," Colona said in an interview. "But if you take that and you institutionalize that into a law, you're choosing one religion's perspective over another."

He said he thinks the rise in people that are becoming unaffiliated from religion is a sign of the country's growing acknowledgement of people of different faiths and backgrounds.

"I think that actually speaks to a growing tolerance in this country. A greater understanding and acceptance of other religious points of view," Colona said.

Rep. Ken Wilson, R-Smithville, has an interesting perspective on the role of religion in politics. Wilson is serving his first term as a state representative and is also a pastor at Edgerton Christian Church in Smithville.

"You can do both. In fact, being a public servant is just allowing me to live out my faith that we're all supposed to do," Wilson said. "We are all to submit to the governing authorities. We are all to be good stewards we are all to serve others. And having that understanding of my faith makes me a better lawmaker."

Those Christian roots that Wilson displays are evident even in the architecture of Missouri's Capitol. Inside the rotunda, where thousands of Missourians visit every year, those roots are displayed proudly within plain sight. Engraved on the north side of the rotunda is a bible verse: Psalm 24:1. "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." And etched in granite on the south side of the rotunda is part of a 19th century prayer: "Lord God of hosts be with us yet - lest we forget."

While those words are engraved in stone inside the Capitol, an even more present reminder is just to the East on the Capitol grounds: a statue of the Ten Commandants.

The Ten Commandants monument, placed by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the late 1950s, remains even as other religious monuments on governmental grounds have been ordered removed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2005, the court ordered the removal of two framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses because they violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

That same year, however, the court ruled that a monument at the Texas Capitol -- virtually identical to Missouri's -- could remain in place.

Justin Dyer, a political science professor at the University of Missouri who specializes in studying the U.S. Constitution and American political thought, said the differing decisions shows the complexity behind the court's jurisprudence.

The term "separation of church and state" was originally coined by Thomas Jefferson.

While serving as president in 1802, Jefferson cited the First Amendment in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.

"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State," Jefferson wrote.

"The Baptists traditionally have been strong proponents of the separation of church and state, particularly so that their own religious worship would be free," Dyer said. "So he is encouraging the Danbury Baptists and telling them that the government will not interfere with their right to free exercise of religion and the phrase that he uses is that the Constitution creates a wall of separation between church and state."

While the public worships freely on the grounds of the Missouri State Capitol, so do lawmakers.

The House and Senate begin each day with a prayer and some legislators regularly attend bible study sessions within the walls of one of the state's most powerful buildings.

"All government, all authority is ordained by God," Wilson said. "It's absolutely proper that we start each day with a prayer just like you start each day with prayer in your home or anywhere else."

Wilson said he thinks the chambers' morning prayers are a good reminder for lawmakers.

"You can get so absorbed in our world that you forget that you're a servant and you forget why you're here and you forget who put you here," he said.

But as traditional religious institutions continue to fall out of favor with a growing number of Americans, political parties continue to embrace them and religiously charged measures continue to move through the legislature.

"The idea that Congress would say stop praying before they open their session or the statehouses would stop praying before they open their session, or that individual members would stop invoking God on the floor - I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon," Dyer said. "As long as Americans will continue to be religious, their elected officials will either be religious or pretend like they're religious."

?So the debate on where that wall of separation between church and state should be continues with no real end in sight. Like religion, it's an issue deeply woven into the fabric of America and Missouri.

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The previous story is a condensed version of a Project 573 story that can be found by clicking here.

This year's project is focused around the rise of people that are becoming unaffiliated with religion. That growing demographic is called the "Nones." For a look at the complete project, go to project573onreligion.com.

Project 573 provides innovative journalism that expands awareness and broadens perspective about a localized issue.

Made up of seniors at the Missouri School of Journalism, the capstone course brings together students from the school's different sequences (print and digital news, radio/TV journalism, magazine, photojournalism, convergence journalism and strategic communication) for an experiment in cross-platform storytelling.

For previous projects go to project573.com.

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