South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) last year announced plans to back legislation that would “allow us to pray in schools again.” That raised a red flag for us at Americans United. Any attempt to shoehorn school-sponsored or coercive prayer into public schools would violate long-standing Supreme Court precedent.
The measure that was introduced in the state legislature would have authorized a one-minute period for “voluntary prayer, reflection, meditation or other quiet, respectful activity.” The Education Committee of the House of Representatives deliberated the bill last week and voted 9-6 to effectively kill it.
Lawmakers seemed troubled by the fact that Noem’s administration hadn’t consulted with school districts before bringing the bill. Others expressed concerns over how the moment might be implemented.
But perhaps the best argument against the bill was made by Wade Pogany of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. Testifying against the measure, he simply asked, “Is there anything stopping kids from praying now? You have a very clear protection for that: the South Dakota Constitution.”
Pogany is right. Public school students in South Dakota (and the other states) can pray during free time on their own, as guided by conscience. They don’t need to be directed to do that, even obliquely.
AU State Policy Counsel Nik Nartowicz made the same point in a Jan. 20 letter to Education Committee members.
“Students already have the right to pray in public schools,” Nartowicz observed. “The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly protects students’ rights to pray, so long as it is voluntary, non-disruptive, student-led, and student-initiated. There is no need to ‘put prayer back’ in public schools because it has never been removed.”
State Rep. Mike Stevens (R-Yankton), who made the motion that effectively killed the bill, put it well when he called the measure an “answer looking for a problem.”
Noem has made no secret of the fact that she’s interested in higher office on the national stage. Thus, her advocacy of this measure might have been an attempt to rally a conservative Christian base by highlighting a “culture war” issue. But the rights of public school students are too important for these types of political games. This bill was poor public policy, and it deserved the fate it met.