Protecting Constitutional Rights

It was a busy week for Catholics in mid-Missouri and for legislators in the Missouri House. I spent much of Monday and Tuesday attending and participating in the ceremonies and celebrations welcoming our new bishop to the Diocese of Jefferson City. It was a moving ceremony, and, though I am not one for pomp or circumstance, a rare occasion where it was greatly appreciated. The formality of such a ceremony is a reminder of the permanent things.

Politicians, political parties, nations, and even empires will rise and fall. The Church and our faith is permanent. They existed prior to our nation, state, or any popular politician of the moment. And they will persist even after they are gone. As a priest put it in Mass last week, there is no successor to August Ceaser, or Napoleon (who promised to destroy the Catholic faith), but there is a successor to St. Peter and there always will be.

It was an interesting contrast to move from the permanence and contemplative mood of vespers and ordination to the hustle-and-bustle of the Missouri House on its first really busy week of the session. On Wednesday, we worked through a morning session, and then an afternoon session that lasted through dinner, “perfecting” 16 bills in total.

I use “perfecting” in quotations because that is the official term for the formal step in the process for a bill to receive a vote of the entire House before moving to the Senate. Bills on the “perfection” calendar are open for amendments to make them better. “Perfection” is more than a misnomer. Has there ever been a “perfect” bill? But I guess you have to call it something, and “perfection” is better than the “Make Bills Better” calendar. After a bill is “perfected,” it is placed on the Third Read calendar for one more vote before its sent to the Senate.

Among other items, we passed legislation to extend and increase benevolent tax credits that benefit maternity homes, pregnancy resource centers, food pantries like the Samaritan Center, child advocates, homeless shelters, and home renovations for Missourians with disabilities. Credits for maternity homes and pregnancy resource centers were increased from $2.5 million to $3.5 million beginning in July 2019.

The most heated debate took place on House Bill 1413, dubbed “paycheck protection,” which would require annual authorization, including electronic authorization, before public employees have union dues or political contributions taken out of their paychecks.

Like right-to-work, the policy idea behind the bill is that no person should be forced to waive a constitutional right in order to get or keep a job. Democrats argue that the motivation for the bill is actually just an attack on labor organizations. Republicans argue that it is about protecting constitutional rights of employees. That is, indeed, why I support the bill.  

But whether those Republicans actually care about protecting worker’s freedoms and constitutional rights will likely be put to the test next week. The very same day that we “perfected” HB 1413, we also started the “perfection” process for legislation that takes the exact opposite approach to protecting constitutional rights of employees.

House Bill 1512, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Corlew, would create a default rule that forces employees into private and often secret arbitration of any disputes they have with their employers. It may not be popular with some people who pretend to be conservative, but both our state and federal Constitutions expressly protect your right to trial by jury in criminal and civil cases.

From even before the founding of our country, the right to trial by jury in both criminal and civil cases was seen as a bulwark against tyranny and special interests. Like other constitutional rights, a person can waive their right to a jury trial. But such a waiver should never be forced upon them. Yet, HB 1512 would do just that – foisting the waiver of constitutional rights onto people who never actually made such agreements.  

In preparation for debate on the bill, I filed an amendment to protect your constitutional rights. Using language that is identical to the right-to-work legislation passed last year, my amendment would prohibit employers from making employment contingent upon a prospective employee’s waiver of their constitutional rights to trial by jury, or waiver of rights to freedom of speech or to petition government relating to (1) acts of sexual assault, rape, or harassment in the workplace; (2) discrimination on the basis of religion, race, gender, disability, national origin, or age; or (3) an employer’s actions to force an employee to participate in an abortion in violation of state law.

Right-to-work proponents insist that no one should be forced to give up their constitutional rights as a condition of employment. House Bill 1512 and my proposed amendment to it puts this rhetoric to the test. If my colleagues care about constitutional rights and employee freedoms, either the bill will be rejected as is, or my amendment protecting your constitutional rights will be accepted.