South Dakota now requires public schools across the state to inscribe their walls with “In God We Trust,” the nation’s motto rooted in religion.
Gov. Kristi Noem signed the law in March requiring that the message be displayed in prominent areas of public schools. The law went into effect this month, meaning students in all 149 South Dakota school districts will see the motto on their first day of classes for the 2019-2020 school year.
State lawmakers who introduced the bill said the new mandate is meant to inspire patriotism in schools, according to The Associated Press.
According to the law, the displays of “In God We Trust” must be at least 12 inches by 12 inches and approved by the school’s principal. The message can be painted, stenciled or hung as a plaque, but the law does not provide funding for schools to install the displays.
Rapid City Area Schools has already worked to install the motto in all 23 of its schools and chose to stencil it to save money. Stenciling cost about $2,800, district community relations manager Katy Urban told NPR.
Urban told the radio network that the community is fairly conservative and believes “it’s a really great thing for our schools and our districts and that kids are seeing it posted on a daily basis.” But she added that she’s seen vocal criticism and comments online that threaten a lawsuit.
“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,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, told AP on Wednesday.
If someone should file a lawsuit against a school district, employee, school board or school board member over the message, South Dakota’s attorney general is required to represent them at no cost, according to the law. The attorney general’s office said it had not received any lawsuits as of Thursday, NPR reported.
In May, a group of students from Rapid City’s Stevens High School told their school board that the motto appears to favor Christianity over other religions, according to the Rapid City Journal. The group, called Working to Initiate Societal Equality (WISE), suggested that the district display a different version of the message that includes Buddha, Yahweh, Allah, science and the spirits.
“I think that’s a really foundational element of American society, is that we are a cultural melting pot and it is really important that we make all people who come to America to feel welcome and to be more in accordance with the First Amendment, since we all have the freedom of religion,” Stevens High student Abigail Ryan told KOTA-TV.
Urban said there’s “been no discussion among the board about any alternative,” according to the Journal.
“In God We Trust” was adopted as the country’s motto in 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the proposal into law, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. It appeared on paper money the following year but had been displayed on coins since 1864 amid increased religious sentiment during the Civil War.