JEFFERSON CITY • A jury trial begins this week for 23 clergy members who were arrested after protesting the Missouri Senate in 2014, when their chants and singing led lawmakers to suspend the Senate session.
The protesters were calling for Medicaid expansion, and they were arrested by Capitol police after refusing to leave the Senate gallery. They now face charges for obstructing government function and trespassing.
Typically, charges for these kind of political demonstrations are dropped or not pursued by prosecutors, making this trial unusual, something advocates who gathered at Cole County Circuit Court on Monday were quick to point out.
People are also reading…
“The fact that for at least three days this week we are tying up taxpayer dollars in trying to crucify clergy, faith leaders, who dared to say anything, to sing and to pray, I am actually shocked that this day would come,” said the Rev. Cassandra Gould, executive director of Missouri Faith Voices.
Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City, who chairs the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, said in a statement Monday that the charges were racially motivated. Almost all of the clergy members on trial are black.
“Criminal charges never should have been brought in this case. Protests that are far more boisterous and disruptive than what occurred in the Senate two years ago are common in the Missouri Capitol and rarely result in prosecution,” Ellington said. “Apparently, there is a different standard when the protesters are African-American.”
Speaking on the courthouse steps before jury selection began, Gould and other supporters vowed to continue efforts to expand Medicaid in Missouri.
“We will not stop until Missouri joins the majority of other states in this country, both Republican and Democrat, who have shown compassion and value to the working poor in their states and passed Medicaid expansion,” said Richard von Glahn, with Missouri Jobs With Justice.
At issue is expanding coverage under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Missouri is one of 19 states that has opted against expanding Medicare to cover those with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty level — $16,243 for an individual and $33,465 for a family of four as of 2015.
It has largely become a partisan issue. Many Democrats, including Gov. Jay Nixon, have called for expanding the coverage, but Republican majorities in both chambers of the Missouri Legislature have rejected proposals, saying the state can’t afford to foot its share of the bill at the expense of education or other programs. They also contend expansion means pouring more money into a broken system.
The Rev. Emmett Baker, a pastor at the Beth-El Baptist Church in St. Louis and one of the protesters, said at the time that advocates had exhausted other options to reach out to legislators.
“We needed to do something to aid our congregations,” he said after the protest. “We have a lot of working poor, and we need to do something for them.”
Gould said the charges were “frivolous” and called for them to be dismissed by the court.
“I was there that day. We did not go stop the state Senate. Maybe it was their lunch break,” she said. “That was their decision (to stop the session), not ours.”