South Dakota’s Republican lawmakers said it was about history — the motto appears on money, on license plates, and in the fourth stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner. It’s also likely discussed in the classroom, where historical inquiry is a key part of the state’s social studies curriculum.
But legislators said they wanted to make it more clear; they wanted to ‘‘reaffirm’’ it. So this fall, when students return to school, a new and compulsory message will greet them: ‘‘In God We Trust.’’ It’ll be the first new academic year since South Dakota’s GOP leadership passed a law requiring every public school to display the American maxim ‘‘in a prominent location’’ and in font no smaller than 12-by-12 inches.
‘‘Our national motto and founding documents are the cornerstone of freedom and we should teach our children about these things,’’ Senator Phil Jensen, the controversial Rapid City politician who sponsored the bill, said at a hearing on the legislation.
South Dakota joins a growing list of states that force their schools to display the motto. At least half a dozen states passed ‘‘In God We Trust’’ bills last year, and another 10 have introduced or passed the legislation so far in 2019. Similar signage is going up in Kentucky schools this summer, and Missouri could be next.
Opponents of these laws contend that the statute is about far more than history and they have argued that its invocation of ‘‘God’’ is an endorsement of religion and a violation of the First Amendment.
‘‘Our position is that it’s a terrible violation of freedom of conscience to inflict a godly message on a captive audience of schoolchildren,’’ Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor told the Associated Press.
Gaylor’s group, which in court has challenged the motto’s inclusion on the dollar bill, fought the South Dakota legislation, too. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also opposes the law, arguing in a statement that, ‘‘No student should feel pressured in public school to adopt certain religious beliefs.’’
Even Jensen, after being questioned about his bill’s intent, conceded it was informed by religion.
‘‘Let’s keep hope alive,’’ he said, after quoting Ronald Reagan and Chuck Norris on the merits of a god-fearing country. ‘‘This is our legislature, our history, a nation that trusts God.’’
‘‘Our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and I’m sure that’s where the motto emanates from,’’ Jensen continued. ‘‘I view this as a historical reaffirmation of the principles our country was founded on.’’
A number of the state’s students have objected to the new requirement. At a Rapid City school board meeting in May, a group of local high school students proposed an alternate motto that included the names of other deities like Buddha and Allah, along with the secular options, ‘‘ourselves’’ and ‘‘science.’’ The students said they are proud Americans, but they feel ‘‘In God We Trust’’ privileges Christianity over other belief systems.
‘‘We are a cultural melting pot and it is really important that we make all people who come to America to feel welcome,’’ Abigail Ryan, one of the students, told the TV station KEVN.
Thus far, the vocal challenges have done nothing to slow the state-wide installation of the four-word phrase. Wade Pogany, executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota advocacy organization, told the Washington Post that schools are taking different approaches to the displays. Some facilities — such as South Park Elementary in Rapid City — are opting for a simple, severe stenciling. Others are putting up plaques or posters or including the words among existing patriotic exhibits.
At its best, Pogany said, the motto will start a discussion and pose fundamental questions: ‘‘What is patriotism about, what is Americanism about?’’
His group didn’t take an official stance on the bill, but, anticipating legal challenges, he lobbied for a provision that would insulate schools from future lawsuits.
‘‘Our only focus was protecting the schools because it’s obviously a controversial issue,’’ he said.
But at one of the bill’s hearings in January, Pogany asked lawmakers to let school boards decide for themselves whether they’d decorate their walls with the motto. He said some communities were worried about the pending legislation.
‘‘There’s concern, there is tension,’’ he said at the hearing. ‘‘It could cause controversy.’’
And it wouldn’t be the first time.
Americans have long debated the role of religion in public life — some saying its indelible impact should be embraced and celebrated and some arguing that the founders explicitly sought a separation of church and state. This division has played out, in courts and out, over the placement of the Ten Commandments, required prayers and bible classes in schools, and vouchers that allow parents to use public money to send their children to religious academies.
In Florida, a week after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Democratic Representative Kimberly Daniels pushed for a measure similar to the one in South Dakota, mandating that every public school include ‘‘In God We Trust,’’ which is also the state’s motto. Some at the school said they resented the effort, but it passed anyway and was signed into law.
As she promoted the bill at the state Capitol, she revealed her inspiration: God, she said, had spoken to her in a dream.