South Dakota joins other states in legislative prayer case

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August 13, 2013

South Dakota

By Jennifer Springer

PIERRE, South Dakota: South Dakota’s attorney general has thrown the state’s support behind a legal defense of prayer at government meetings.[1][2] The U.S. Supreme Court decided in May 2013 that it would hear a challenge that will determine whether the U.S. constitution allows for prayer during legislative sessions, and if so, to what extent it's allowed.[3][1][2]

Attorney General Marty Jackley announced August 2, 2013, that he was one of the 28 state attorneys general who have signed onto an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief in the case, which involves prayers that took place in Greece, New York.[1][2] The city’s invocations were ruled unconstitutional by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, citing the First Amendment’s prohibition of the “establishment of religion.”[1]

Were the Supreme Court to affirm the 2nd Circuit’s ruling, Jackley said, it could force the state and many local governments in South Dakota to re-examine opening prayers or cease to allow them altogether.[1][3] Legislative sessions in Pierre begin with invocations, as do city council meetings in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, which Jackley said was a factor in the decision to support Greece. “This could affect city councils across the state,” Jackley said.[1]

Each session of the South Dakota State Legislature is opened with a prayer, but lawmakers do not guide the practice. Clergy members in Pierre organize and rotate duties, and the invocations and names of those who offer them are available on the Legislative Research Council website.[2] Rabbis, priests, pastors and Native American spiritual leaders have given the legislative invocations.[2]

A Wisconsin-based group, Freedom from Religion Foundation, tried to persuade Rapid City to stop praying at city meetings, but Jackley says his office has never fielded a complaint about legislative or city council prayers.[1][2]

Patrick Elliott, a lawyer for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said the foundation sent letters to Rapid City this spring regarding the city council's prayers. Elliott also said the prayers in the New York town board invoked only Jesus Christ, indicating it was affiliating government with Christianity. The Rapid City council's invocation is similar to the one being challenged in the Supreme Court case, he said.[1][2]

While Supreme Court may decide to define what extent of prayer is constitutionally acceptable, supporters say they would like states to have the discretion to decide how to continue with the long standing tradition of opening session with a prayer.[3]

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