The House has given broad bipartisan first-round approval to a bill that, its sponsor says, is necessary to make clear for school districts what the law in Missouri says about students’ religious liberties.

Representative Elijah Haahr (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Elijah Haahr (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The bill (HB 1303) is offered by Representative Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield).

He says students’ ability to express religious beliefs in schools is jeopardized not by school districts, but by organizations who take advantage of unclear state statute to sue school districts in order to block such expressions.

“As an attorney I know the money is made in the gray areas,” says Haahr. “When the statute’s unclear, the case law’s unclear, that’s where attorneys get excited and they want to make a move. If we lay out something clear … as long as a school district follows the state statutes, it makes it very hard for anyone to bring a case against them.”

The legislation won broad support on the initial, or “perfection,” vote, 128-20, including from at least one lawmaker who had earlier opposed it.

“I think what this bill does is protected already,” says Representative Margo McNeil (D-Florissant), a former teacher who voted against the bill in committee but voted for it Wednesday. “Perhaps putting it in state statute would make school districts in service their teachers on how to deal with religious issues … I think that it is a valid concern.”

Opponents argue the bill increases the likelihood of litigation against schools.

Representative Bob Burns (D-St. Louis) says some school districts can’t afford additional litigation.

“Some districts just will not challenge because they’re in such financial difficulty. They realize even having that attorney sit at a school board meeting costs an astronomical amount of money at the end of the year.”

The proposal needs another favorable vote to be sent to the Senate.