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Despite court rulings, South Dakota's Noem pushes for school prayer

The promotion of Biblical values are the responsibility of families and churches. So why does Kristi Noem want to get the government involved?

It's hardly a secret that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is trying to raise her national visibility and score points with the Republican base ahead of the 2024 election cycle. What's of greater interest, however, is how the GOP governor is trying to advance her ambitions.

In July, for example, Noem spoke at an event in Iowa, where she told conservatives she doesn't recognize the United States anymore. "When I grew up, people were proud to have a job," the governor said. "They weren't confused on the difference between boys and girls. We prayed in schools – which by the way, in South Dakota, I'm putting prayer back in our school."

The South Dakotan took a similar message to a conservative outlet called Real America's Voice, arguing yesterday that Americans should look at officials' actions to determine whether they "line up with the word of God" and "see if they're Biblical."

Of course, given that the United States is a democracy, and not a theocracy, officials' actions are supposed to line up with the Constitution and the rule of law, not how some people interpret scripture.

But in the same interview, Noem went just a little further. Right Wing Watch posted this excerpt:

"We've seen our society, our culture, degrade as we've removed God out of our lives.... When I was growing up, we spent every Sunday, every night, every Wednesday night in church. Our church family was a part of our life. We read the Bible every day, as a family, together.... I don't know if families do that as much anymore, and those Biblical values are learned in the family, and they're learned in church.... We in South Dakota have decided to take action to really stand for Biblical principles.... I have legislation I'll be proposing this year that will allow us to pray in schools again."

The governor, wholly indifferent to the separation of church and state, added that an emphasis on "Biblical principles" will help "re-center" children who attend public schools.

I won't pretend to know how well Noem understands the law and relevant court rulings pertaining to religious liberty. Perhaps the governor knows the truth and uses rhetoric like this to advance her political ambitions; perhaps she's genuinely confused.

Either way, the Republican's position is badly flawed and in need of a fact-check.

For example, when Noem said she'll introduce a proposal to "allow us to pray in schools again," she's pushing for a right that already exists. Voluntary school prayer was never removed from schools.

What the governor seemed to be suggesting, however, isn't a system in which students pray on their own, but one in which school officials intervene in children's religious lives. In the United States, that's not legal: As my friends at Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently explained, "The South Dakota Supreme Court struck down mandatory recitation of the Lord's Prayer in the state's public schools in 1929. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools in 1962 and '63."

Noem may believe the Supreme Court's new conservative majority is open to dramatic societal changes, but there is no scenario in which the federal judiciary allows a state to try to "re-center" children through the imposition of "Biblical principles."

But perhaps most important is the degree to which the governor's argument contradicts itself. At one point in yesterday's interview, Noem argues, "Biblical values are learned in the family, and they're learned in church." Moments later, the governor – who is ostensibly a proponent of small government – added that she believes it's important for the government to get into the religion-promoting business.

The promotion of Biblical values are the responsibility of families and churches – except in South Dakota, where Noem believes the responsibility should also shift to government officials.

If the governor believes this plan is likely to work out well, she should probably lower her expectations.