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South Dakota House committee rejects Gov. Noem’s bill to 'restore protections for prayer in schools'

Gov. Kristi Noem
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference held in the Hyatt Regency on February 27, 2021, in Orlando, Florida. Begun in 1974, CPAC brings together conservative organizations, activists, and world leaders to discuss issues important to them. |

A Republican-controlled South Dakota House committee rejected Republican Gov. Kristi Noem’s bill that would require public schools to set aside time for students to pray every morning if they so choose, reportedly due to pressure from education groups.

The bill, introduced in December, would “require a moment of silence in schools to begin the school day.” But it was rejected by the House Education Committee on Friday after education groups argued that voluntary prayer is already allowed in schools and the proposed legislation could imply an unclear mandate, The Associated Press reports.

The legislation would mandate that “no school employee may dictate the action to be taken by students or teachers during the moment of silence” and that “no student may interfere with another student’s engagement in the moment of silence.”

It also clarified that the language in the bill shouldn’t “be construed to permit schools to conduct the moment of silence as a religious exercise.”

But Rep. Will Mortenson, a Republican, contends that the language in the bill is vague.

“Maybe it’s me, but I view prayer as something that is personal and not performative,” he was quoted as saying.

The governor’s office had reportedly not consulted groups representing schools and the teacher’s union on the proposal, but Noem’s office argued that 15 other states had similar measures.

Allen Cambon, the governor’s policy advisor, told the House committee that the bill would “serve as a valuable learning opportunity” and a “chance to establish a sense of calm and decorum before students and teachers begin their busy day.”

A press statement from Noem’s office when the bill was introduced in December characterized the bill as an effort to “restore protections for prayer in the classroom.”

The separation of church and state advocacy groups raised concerns with similar bills introduced or passed in other states.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates for a strict separation of church and state, wrote a letter to the Ohio Senate last month criticizing Senate Bill 248 as an “unconstitutional promotion of religion.” The bill was introduced in October and would also mandate a daily moment of silence in schools. 

The Wisconsin-based advocacy group expressed particular opposition to the language of the bill calling on each public school district to “provide for a moment of silence each school day for prayer, reflection, or meditation upon a moral, philosophical, or patriotic theme.” 

“Similar to the Alabama law at issue in [the Supreme Court ruling] Wallace v. Jaffree, Ohio’s moment of silence law states that the moment of silence is ‘for prayer, reflection, or meditation upon a moral, philosophical or patriotic theme,’” the letter reads. “The only
difference is that Ohio’s law suggests prayer first rather than second, making the
endorsement even more clear. This runs squarely into Supreme Court precedent.”

In the 1985 decision, the nation’s high court ruled that Alabama could not require teachers to conduct prayer and religious activities during the school day. 

In a December statement, Noem shared her belief that “every student deserves the opportunity to begin their day with a calm, silent moment.”

“I hope students will take this opportunity to say a quick prayer or reflect on their upcoming day,” she said. “However they choose to take advantage of this time, it will be beneficial to students and teachers alike.”

Last June, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law that would give students a daily opportunity to “reflect and be able to pray as they see fit.”

DeSantis described the moment-of-silence bill as legislation that counters attempts to “push God out of every institution.”

In 2019, Noem signed a law that mandates that all public schools display the national motto “In God We Trust.”

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