'Medicaid 23' protesters face trial in Missouri

Jury selection began Monday in the trial of clergy members charged with trespassing in a May 2014 protest at Missouri's State Capitol. 

Kris Wilson/News-Tribune/AP/File
A visitor walks in Missouri's State Capitol in Jefferson City in May 2013. Twenty-three clergy members who protested lawmakers' decision not to expand Medicaid benefits by chanting and occupying the state Senate gallery went on trial Monday on trespassing charges in connection with the May 2014 protest.

Is a public protest in a state capitol trespassing?

That’s a central question in the trial of 23 clergy members who face charges stemming from a May 2014 protest against Missouri lawmakers’ decision not to expand Medicaid benefits.

The so-called “Medicaid 23,” whose trial began with jury selection on Monday, face misdemeanor charges of trespassing and obstructing Senate business in connection with the protest, which pushed to expand Medicaid benefits to an estimated 300,000 low-income Missourians.

“We were from many cities, many faiths, many races,” the Rev. Lloyd Fields, the pastor of the Greater Gilgal Baptist Bible Church in Kansas City, wrote after his arrest in an email to an acquaintance that was posted online. “But we had one single vision: to see dignity at the center of public life in Missouri.”

The trial is highly unusual, the protesters’ lawyers argue, saying it may violate a 1963 US Supreme Court ruling that noted that “the Fourteenth Amendment does not permit a state to make criminal the peaceful expression of unpopular views.”

The “case is unprecedented in the post-Civil Rights era,” lawyers Rod Chapel and Jay Barnes wrote in a legal brief, Kansas City news publication The Pitch reports.

Mr. Chapel and Mr. Barnes, who is a Republican state lawmaker from Cole County, note that they “could not find a single reported case since 1963 in which a citizen was prosecuted for disrupting a legislative function in a state capitol for peacefully chanting or reciting Bible verses.”

On May 6, 2014, the clergy members led a group of 300 people into the State Capitol, chanting “This is the people’s house,” and singing as they protested the legislature’s decision. Missouri is one of 19 states that has declined to expand Medicaid benefits, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Under the Affordable Care Act, states can receive federal aid to expand Medicaid coverage to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line.

After two hours, the religious leaders, some in their 70s, were arrested by Capitol police after refusing to leave the Senate gallery, The Pitch reports. If they are found guilty, they each face six months in jail and a $500 fine.

Republican lawmakers have repeatedly opposed efforts to expand Medicaid, saying the state could not afford it, while efforts to expand the health benefits were supported by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, The Columbia Tribune reported in 2014.

Protests over Medicaid benefits have occasionally been even more fraught, with a Florida woman's angry confrontation with Republican Gov. Rick Scott in a coffee shop going viral in April.

The religious leaders’ lawyers argue that the trespassing charge is unusual because the Senate gallery at the Capitol in Jefferson City is open to the public, The Pitch reports.

In the 1963 Supreme Court case, Edwards v. South Carolina, 187 African American high school and college students who gathered peacefully to protest segregation were arrested and charged with “breach of the peace.”

The Court reversed the students’ conviction in an 8-1 decision, in which Justice Potter Stewart wrote that the “circumstances in this case reflect an exercise of these basic constitutional rights in their most pristine and classic form.”

Some protesters said concerns about the impact of the denial of benefits had deepened since their protest two years ago.

1,400 Missourians have died or suffered extreme health deterioration because Missouri refused to expand Medicaid,” the Rev. Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City told KCUR. 

“Do not the poor deserve the same quality of health care as the legislators themselves?”

Closing arguments in the case are expected to take place on Wednesday.

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