Overview:

South Dakota's governor is all-in with evangelical schemes to make school prayer more public and performative.

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Although as a nontheist Democrat I’m somewhat of a religious and political outlier in my adopted ruby-red state, South Dakota, I’m proud of how reasonable some of its religiously conservative, Trumpian leaders can sometimes be. Like when it comes to school prayer.

My latest reminder was an unexpected Jan. 21 committee vote in the state House of Representatives rejecting (9-6) Gov. Kristi Noem’s proposal to require a daily “moment of silence” in all the state’s schools.

“Is there anything stopping kids from praying now?”

Wade Pogany, Associated School Boards of South Dakota

Encouragingly, House lawmakers apparently understand what the proposed House Bill 1015, in fact, is: an official government effort to explicitly encourage school prayer, which is as manifestly unconstitutional as it is completely unnecessary.

Opponents of the proposed bill testifying before the House Education Committee pointed out, reasonably, that students are already empowered to pray in schools of their own volition.

“Is there anything stopping kids from praying now?” Wade Pogany of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota asked rhetorically, the Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Argus Leader reported. “You have a very clear protection for that: the South Dakota Constitution.”

After taking the podium to explain to the committee his opposition to the proposed legislation, another bill opponent, Rob Monson, representing School Administrators of South Dakota, paused for a pointedly mocking moment of silence.

“Maybe it’s me, but I view prayer as something that is personal and not performative,” bill opponent Republican Rep. Will Mortenson, who criticized the legislation as vaguely written, told the committee.

Reasonable, like I said.

The governor, unsurprisingly, views her proposed legislation much differently.

“This bill creates an affirmative opportunity for students to pray if they choose or to use their time quietly as they would otherwise see fit,” Allen Cambon, the governor’s policy advisor, told the committee, according to an Associated Press report. “Not only will this serve as a valuable learning opportunity, but it’s a chance to establish a sense of calm and decorum before students and teachers begin their busy day.”

Cambon stressed that besides destressing students to start their school days, the proposed law would “give students a better awareness of their first amendment rights.”

“This is a valuable civic opportunity for them to know they have that opportunity to freely exercise their religion,” Cambon opined. “Especially, in public places.”

This begs the question: If voluntary prayer is already constitutionally protected in schools why do students need an “affirmative opportunity” to engage in it? Certainly, non-praying and nonbelieving students don’t.

The point for Noem and fellow evangelicals is not the praying, per se, but the performative public praying, the in-your-face, socially coercive effect of it. Even Jesus said such braggy prayer was ignoble.

Language in the proposed “moment of silence” bill took exquisite pains to assure that such interludes should in no way be used to encourage a patently religious exercise, and that students could use the moment how they chose.

But it is fig-leaf language designed to obscure the proposal’s obvious religious intent.

Skepticism was appropriate. Gov. Noem has a long history of trying to inject her Christian faith into the innards of government.

She has presented sermons on evangelical Christian ideology on the U.S. House floor during National Day of Prayer events when she was a South Dakota representative. And in 2019 she also pushed and signed into law legislation requiring that the moot national motto “In God We Trust” be prominently displayed in all 149 South Dakota school districts as part of a national evangelical campaign to force religion into schools.

Since last year, she has been on a mission to supposedly “restore protections for prayer in public schools,” by which she means the kind of coercive, staff-driven devotionals where coaches kneel to God in prayer with their entire team on the 50-yard-line after games as spectators watch and are not-so-subtly indoctrinated in the stands.

Its clear that separation of church and state will not be part of Gov. Noem’s platform if, as Republican odds-makers speculate, she may run for president in 2024. She’s certainly been taking pains in the past few months to ingratiate herself with the defeated, legally suspect former president by heeling to the MAGA line, including pandering to evangelicals who pack his base (although Noem herself appears to be a genuine true believer).

Still, it’s encouraging to know that at least some fellow Republicans in the state’s legislature have occasionally been willing to stand athwart at least some of her more hair-brained religious schemes.

What galled the state’s education establishment was that Gov. Noem did not alert school districts and teachers beforehand to introduction of the “moment of silence” bill or seek their input, which the governor’s office acknowledged.

“What you folks want is less government, smaller government, less intrusion,” Mitch Richter of the South Dakota United Schools Association told the state House committee, South Dakota Public Broadcasting reported. “Yet, we bring these types of bills without any contact, without any discussion, on how they are going to work in the classroom.”

Of course, “how they are going to work in the classroom” appears at best a peripheral concern of the governor and her bill-proposing staff.

The primary goal for evangelicals, as always, is not how to do what is best for everyone but how to make Christianity more front and center in American life, especially in schools, which proselytizers know are crowded with impressionable, God-susceptible kids. Not incidentally, they comprise the next generation of believers.

“Moment of silence” is just a sleazy way of saying “grift.”

Why are Christians in positions of power so duplicitous? You’d think they’d know that’s a deadly sin.

Well, at least nine members of the South Dakota House Education Committee, if not knowing the grift of HB 1015 is sinful still understand it’s intent is dumb.

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...