Terry H. Schwadron
Sept. 26, 2021
News this week included renewed promises by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who is among those Republicans angling to push themselves forward for a place on a 2024 presidential slate, for new government mandates.
She is dead set against any mandate for covid vaccines, masks, or public health measures in a pandemic, but she wants to introduce mandates to return school prayer in her state, she told several media interviews.
For a moment, let’s skip the fact that voluntary school prayer already is allowed and that such a mandate for prayer was declared unconstitutional decades ago, what we have captured is that question about just what rules we are willing to mandate.
The obvious corollary is whether we think very partisan governors or presidents should be able to dictate such mandates — seemingly based on their personal outlook and attitudes. For example, we see that Republicans want mandates on abortion, but not guns; Democrats want mandates on health care access, but not on enforceable rules for social media controls for misinformation.
Here is Noem in her own words, for example: “”I think that it’s really time for all of us to look at the actions of our leaders and see if they line up with the word of God, to see if they’re
Biblical and if they really are following through on those actions that God’s called us to do to protect people, to serve people, and to really minister to them.”
It is a religious-forward attitude that Noem has promoted since earlier this summer in meetings with community groups, speeches and media appearances — in other words something she is preaching, not just a passing comment. Two years ago, she signed a bill adopted by the Republican-majority South Dakota legislature mandating that every public school display the motto, “In God We Trust.”
Caring for Prayer, Not Covid
The curiosity here, of course, is that whatever her personal outlook about the need for religion and caring in our lives does not extend to coronavirus. South Dakota, with a population a tenth the size of New York City, ranks eighth among states for coronavirus cases per capita.
Noem has suggested that individuals get vaccinated but insisted that no one tell them to get jabbed. She has been slow to support testing, has actively promoted two huge gatherings of motorcyclists in Sturgis that have been tagged as super spreader events for covid. She has joined with other Republican governors in promoting alternative use of monoclonal antibody treatments — which are more expensive and available as treatment only for those already contracting the illness rather than mandates for vaccines to prevent it.
As David Badash of The New Civil Rights Movement notes, Noem does not see herself as a government or political leader, but a religious one. In a recent Real America Voice interview, Noem said, “We’ve seen our society, our culture, degrade, as we’ve removed God out of our lives, and people become what they spend their time doing. When I was growing up, we spent every Sunday morning, every night, every Wednesday night in church, we were our church, family was a part of our life, we read the Bible every day as a family together, and spent time with each other, recognizing that we were created to serve others.”
Serving others, hat is, unless it might mean wearing a mask.
“I have legislation that we’ll be proposing this year that will allow us to pray in schools, again, I really believe that focusing on those foundational Biblical principles that teach us that every life has value, and every person has a purpose, will recenter our kids and help us really heal this division that we see taking over our country.”
No Actual Plan
Noem’s staff told Politfact over the summer that plans are still forming over school prayer, and there are no concrete examples about exactly how she plans to do this or enforce it or provide exemptions to people who happen not to subscribe to her Christian views. Noem, 49, is Protestant, and attends Foursquare Church in Watertown.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark 1962 case, Engel v. Vitale, that schools and their representatives could not organize or lead organized prayers in public schools. However, the ruling does not prohibit silent, private praying in a public school. South Dakota allows students a moment of silence, when they can feel free to pray or reflect, but officials in public schools are not allowed to impose prayer.
Indeed, The South Dakota Supreme Court struck down mandatory recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in the state’s public schools in 1929.
Noem was among the first governors to attack Joe Biden for a White House executive order mandating that federal employees, including the military, get vaccinations, as well as businesses with more than 100 workers as a strategy to contain coronavirus. “The value of personal responsibility far outweighs government mandates,” she wrote in a USA Today op-ed, especially as we learn more about covid the vaccine and therapeutic treatment options. She added that the Constitution leaves public health authority to states.
Noem, a farmer and business owner, is happy to cite constitutional law and Supreme Court precedents when it fits with her views, but apparently not when it involves mandating public adoption of a white, rural, Christian view of the world. Just how that squares with a Census showing a broadening of non-white, non-Christian Americans raises questions, of course.
She’s apparently praying that others agree with her.