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Why is state government endorsing Christianity?

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This editorial ran in the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader on April 5 and is republished with permission.

For those paying attention, it appears that Christianity is being thrust upon South Dakotans in a more state-sanctioned manner these days. The reasons behind that are worth examining.

Gov. Kristi Noem signed into law in March a bill that requires public schools to prominently display the national motto, “In God We Trust,” starting in 2019-20. A prominent location is defined as a school entryway, cafeteria or other common area where students are likely to see it.

It’s reasonable to view this as an attempt to formalize Christianity as the state’s official religion in the eyes of those students, which violates the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment.

That clause forbids government entities from establishing an official religion or elevating one religion, which means state leaders have put their school districts on shaky constitutional ground.

Maybe that’s why the Legislature added language declaring that if displaying “In God We Trust” leads to a lawsuit, the attorney general will provide legal representation at no cost to the local district or school board.

If it sounds like South Dakota is bucking for a fight, perhaps mindful of a more conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court, they’re certainly not alone. Six states passed “In God We Trust” bills into law last year, and South Dakota was among 10 that either introduced or passed such legislation in 2019.

This is part of a national effort called “Project Blitz,” spurred by conservative Christian political groups that are pushing model legislation and other evangelical-based directives on receptive state capitals, with an eye toward greater national influence.

One such group, Capitol Commission, even handed out bibles stamped with the South Dakota state seal at a legislative coffee in Pierre in February.

The justification for “In God We Trust” legislation is that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of using the phrase on U.S. currency and as a national motto due to “ceremonial deism” in those contexts, meaning they have become customary enough to be deemed nonreligious.

But bringing the phrase into public schools is more complicated, as evidenced by Supreme Court rulings that have struck down organized prayer at school assemblies and football games as unconstitutional.

“Anything that might send a message to our children that you have to be a Christian to be a full American is extremely problematic,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which is fighting against the recent spate of legislation.

More disturbing is that conservative Christian groups pushing these bills view “In God We Trust” as a preliminary step. Some states have moved to the next stage by seeking to pass “bible literacy” bills, which allow students in public high schools to study the Old and New Testaments. President Trump weighed in on these bills in January, calling them “great.”

Notably, the faith-based fervor of this movement comes at a time when organized religion has become less prevalent in American society.

The share of Americans who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists decreased from 71 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in a recent Pew Research Center study. The percentages who say they pray every day, attend religious services regularly and consider religion to be very important in their lives have also declined.

While South Dakota still has an overwhelmingly Christian population, times are changing. The Sioux Falls School District has become increasingly diverse, with 90 different languages spoken among its student body. Policies or symbols that exclude other faiths or alienate nonbelievers violate a fundamental mandate of publicly funded institutions.

This is not to say that Christianity is not part of the fabric of our society. The prevalence of faith-based groups and their efforts to promote spiritual and community growth is hard to ignore.

But religion at its core is a personal pursuit, meant to be shared with family and like-minded congregations. The trouble occurs when it is thrust upon those with different beliefs or no religious inclination at all. The day we make those people feel less a part of society is the day we lose track of the values that our country was built upon.

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1802.

There’s no telling what he might have thought of Noem’s decision to declare a Statewide Day of Prayer on April 7 as a means of “praying for the well-being” of those affected by recent flooding throughout the region.

It’s quite possible that Jefferson would have pointed out that Sunday is already a day of prayer and suggested a day of robust volunteerism instead.