JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — More than 20 clergy members dressed in religious garb and bearing crosses packed in a crowded Missouri courtroom Tuesday as their trial opened on charges stemming from a peaceful protest in the state Capitol.
In May 2014, a few hundred clergy members and other activists demonstrated in the public gallery of the state Senate in support of expanded eligibility for Medicaid health care in the state. That's been a nonstarter for years in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Senate Republican leaders halted work for about an hour amid the protest as police worked to clear the galleries of the participants, who sang hymns and chanted. Capitol Police arrested, but did not handcuff or take into custody, 23 clergy who refused to leave.
They're now sometimes referred to as the Medicaid 23, although only 22 defendants were in the courtroom when the trial started Tuesday on charges of misdemeanor trespassing and disrupting government operations. They face up to $500 in fines and up to six months behind bars.
Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson said during the trial Tuesday that the only "true" verdict is "one that finds these people guilty of their crimes."
Police at the time and during court proceedings Tuesday said that the protest was peaceful. But at least one officer testified Tuesday that senators would not have been able to work because of the noise.
The Rev. Cassandra Gould of Quinn Chapel AME in Jefferson City, who was part of the demonstration but was not charged, said she's "utterly shocked and disappointed" over a trial she said is "tying up taxpayers dollars in trying to crucify faith leaders, clergy, who dared to say anything, to sing and to pray."
One law professor described the case as a possible example of prosecutors becoming "more zealous in their prosecution of protesters."
"Most times in the past, there wouldn't have been any legal action following this," University of Southern California law professor Jody Armour said.
The trial is expected to end Wednesday.