When students return to public schools across South Dakota this fall, they should expect to see a new message on display: “In God We Trust.”
A new state law that took effect this month requires all public schools in the state’s 149 districts to paint, stencil or otherwise prominently display the national motto.
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 to be 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 a font no smaller than 12 by 12 inches.
The South Dakota lawmakers who proposed the law said the requirement was meant to inspire patriotism in the state’s public schools. Displays must be at least 12-by-12 inches and must be approved by the school’s principal, according to the law.
Associated School Boards of South Dakota executive director Wade Pogany said schools are complying with the law in different ways.
“Some have plaques, others have it painted on the wall, maybe in a mural setting,” Pogany said. In one school “it was within their freedom wall. They added that to a patriotic theme.”
South Dakota joins a growing list of states that force their schools to display the motto. At least half a dozen passed “In God We Trust” bills last year, and 10 more 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.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, which has legally challenged the motto’s inclusion on U.S. currency, alerted its South Dakota members to contact their legislators to express opposition to the law.
Opponents of these laws contend that the statute is about far more than history. 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 school children,” foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said Wednesday.
Pogany said the school boards’ association was OK with the legislation as long as it provided legal protection.
“One of our concerns was that this would be contested. So we had asked the legislature to put a ‘hold harmless’ clause into the bill. The state would then defend the schools and pay the cost of the defense,” Pogany said.
Administrators at Rapid City Area Schools have finished stenciling the motto on the walls of its 23 public schools. The law doesn’t provide funding for installing the message. Stenciling the motto cost a total of $2,800 at Rapid City schools, spokeswoman Katy Urban told the Rapid City Journal.
In May, a group of students from the district’s Stevens High School suggested to the school board an alternate version of the motto they designed that includes the names of Buddha, Yahweh and Allah — as well as terms likes science and the spirits. The student group Working to Initiate Societal Equality, or WISE, told board members that the standard motto appears to favor Christianity over other religions.
“To my knowledge there’s been no discussion among the board about any alternative,” Urban said.
“In God We Trust” was adopted when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation in 1956. According to the U.S. Department of Treasury website it first appeared on paper money the following year.