South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) said recently that she soon plans to promote legislation to bring back school prayer.
During an interview with conservative personality David Brody, Noem bemoaned that we’ve “seen our society, our culture, degrade as we’ve removed God out of our lives.” She told Brody that when she was growing up, “Our church family was a part of our lives. We read the Bible every day as a family together. I don’t know if families do that as much anymore.”
Perhaps they don’t, and there may be a good reason for it – they don’t want to. As recent polling data has shown, a growing number of Americans are “nones” when it comes to religion. They choose not to affiliate with any particular denomination. Some remain spiritual, but others have left religion entirely.
In a free country with a secular constitution, we all get to make our own decisions about what role, if any, religion will play in our lives. That’s not good enough for Noem and those who think like her. They seem to believe the government should have a role to play in these deeply personal matters. It’s a very curious stand for a conservative who claims to want to get government out of our hair.
Noem was vague about her school prayer proposal, telling Brody that South Dakota public schools already post “In God We Trust” signs, then adding, “And I have legislation that will allow us to pray in schools again.”
Noem made a similar claim while speaking to Christian nationalists in Iowa in July. She was short on specifics then, too, and her office later refused to provide more details to the media.
Suffice it to say, any sort of proposal to bring back school-sponsored, mandatory, coercive or compelled prayer in the public schools of South Dakota would be illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled definitively in 1962 that public school students can’t be pressured to pray in class. (It’s also worth noting that the South Dakota Supreme Court invalidated a law requiring recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools much earlier, in 1929.)
Public school students have the right to engage in voluntary, non-disruptive prayer in public schools. It’s possible that Noem may end up proposing symbolic legislation that merely restates this fact. Anything beyond that, any bill that pressures public school students to take part in prayer or allows school officials to sponsor it, would be a clearly unconstitutional infringement on the rights of students and their families.
P.S. To learn more about the religious freedom rights of students, parents and staff in public schools, check out these great “Know Your Rights” guides produced by Americans United.