The Freedom From Religion Foundation has funded billboards in South Dakota’s largest cities to protest a new state law requiring the display of the national motto “In God We Trust” in public schools.
One billboard went up this week on West 41st Street in Sioux Falls and the other at Baken Park in Rapid City. The Sioux Falls billboard message will move to 41st Street on the week of Sept. 23. And FFRF will place the message up on a billboard in Pierre, the state capital, that same week on Highways 14 and 83.
Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said the billboards will be up for one month.
Kristin Wileman, press secretary for Gov. Kristi Noem, said the governor recognizes the group's right to place the advertisements even though she disagrees with their message.
"It’s a free country, and if this is what folks want to spend their money on, they are free to do so," Wileman said. "The governor believes that it is important for students in our schools to remember the foundational principles our country was founded on. We should never be afraid to proclaim that we are one nation under God."
The billboard message features a cartoon showing the presidents on Mount Rushmore skeptically proclaiming “There goes the neighborhood” as the motto “In God We Trust” is carved into the mountainside below them. The cartoon was drawn by Steve Benson, a Pulitzer prize-winning editorial cartoonist who formerly worked for the Arizona Republic.
"I am amazed, but I'm not really surprised," said state Sen. Phil Jensen of Rapid City, who sponsored the "In God We Trust" bill in the Senate last session. "The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has already ruled in our favor and the Supreme Court has ruled in our favor. This group is just trying to stir things up and turn public opinion against us." Chris Johnson of Rapid City was the main sponsor on the House side with 50 co-sponsors.
Gaylor said that was part of the group's hope in placing the billboards.
"We want to educate people, protest the law and change public opinion on the issue," she said.
Gaylor said placing the national motto in all schools is exclusionary and offends people who have differing religious beliefs or no religious beliefs at all.
"This circumstance shows why 'In God We Trust' should never have been adopted as the national motto in the 1950s," Gaylor said. "It should have said, 'In God some of us trust,' which would be a bad motto. It is exclusionary and theocratic."
Jensen said he did not agree that the national motto was exclusionary.
"This is about our national motto. It points outs our Judeo-Christian heritage that protects our freedoms," he said. "Our Founders were men of faith for the most part."
House sponsor Chris Johnson said he believed the work of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is far more exclusionary than the national motto.
"It is the opposite of exclusionary," Rep. Johnson said. "Saying Freedom From Religion is exclusionary in their name. In God We Trust doesn't say who God is. In America you have freedom of religion which is the freedom to believe in any religion or no religion at all."
Johnson said he believes in the group's rights to protest and put up signs but he believes that it is a myth that this bill encourages exclusionary beliefs.
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"America is the only country where our founding documents say our rights don't come from the government, but from something higher," Johnson said. "Some people believe that is God. Some may believe it is from themselves. Either way, it is not from the government. That is what the motto represents."
The group placing the billboards across the state disagree with that statement. In a press release, the FFRF said, "many prominent U.S. Founders were Deists and promoters of the Enlightenment. Our nation’s original motto, E Pluribus Unum (out of many, come one), chosen by the distinguished committee of Jefferson, Adams and Franklin, fosters the concept of unity."
The release went on to say “In God We Trust” is a completely inappropriate motto for our nation, given the fact that the U.S. Constitution is itself godless, and the document’s only references to religion are exclusionary, such as barring any religious test for public office.
The motto has been the subject of court challenges in the past.
In the 2004 case Elk Dale v. Newdow, Sandra Day O'Connor called uses of the national motto "ceremonial deism" that didn't violate the constitutional ban on establishing a religion.
She wrote for the majority of the Supreme Court that, "A reasonable observer fully aware of our national history and the origins of such practices, would not perceive these acknowledgements as signifying a government endorsement of any specific religion.”
O’Connor continued, “I believe that government can, in a discrete category of cases, acknowledge or refer to the divine without offending the Constitution.”
Gaylor said placing the motto in schools was unfair in that young, impressionable students were being proselytized instead of educated.
“We hate to see a captive audience of public school children targeted by the Religious Right and the Christian Nationalists who are behind this legislation,” said Gaylor.
She claimed South Dakota's law was part of Project Blitz, a legislative effort in state legislatures with bills promoting hard-line Christian nationalist views. She also made the accusation that Project Blitz is the brainchild of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation.
Jensen has confirmed that the Congressional Prayer Caucus was supportive of the bill and even offered to assist financially, if the new law led to any lawsuits.
Gaylor said she didn't believe FFRF would attack this law in court because there is a lot of precedent supporting the use of the motto in various ways.
"The court world has changed a lot under (President Donald) Trump," she said. "I'm not sure how we would proceed legally."
Gaylor said the group hopes that people in South Dakota who are injured by the placement of the motto in public schools would contact her group.
"We can't file legal action against the new law on its face," she said. "But we would like to hear complaints by those who are affected."