South Dakota public schools must display ‘In God We Trust’ in a prominent place, according to law

The state isn't alone in requiring public schools to display the phrase.

South Dakota public schools must display 'In God We Trust' in a prominent place, according to law
South Dakota public schools must display 'In God We Trust' in a prominent place, according to law. (PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images)

South Dakota public schools are preparing for what will be first the academic year that students will see “In God We Trust” displayed in school buildings as mandated by law. The bill passed the legislature and was signed by Gov. Kristi Noem (R) in March.

Only one Democratic state senator voted in favor of the bill.

During the 2019-2020 school year, all South Dakota public schools will have to display the “In God We trust” in a “prominent location” and the words “may be no smaller than twelve inches wide by twelve inches wide.” Prominent location is defined as a school cafeteria, school entryway, or other common area. The law also requires that the attorney general provides legal representation at no cost to the district, employee, school board, or member of the school board and that the state will financial responsibility for any monetary damages, attorney’s fees, and other costs.

Although the law covers any legal fees for schools that are challenged over the new law, it doesn’t provide funding for schools to comply.


According to the Treasury Department, the first appeal for the motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. coins came from Rev. M. R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, to then Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase in 1861. Watkinson wrote, “You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?”

Watkinson then suggested the words “PERPETUAL UNION” and “GOD, LIBERTY, LAW” be inscribed on U.S. coins. “This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object,” he added. “This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the Associated Press last week that the motto “In God We Trust” being forcibly displayed in public schools was “a terrible violation of freedom of conscience to inflict a godly message on a captive audience of school children.”

Rapid City Journal reported in July that the words have so far been painted on prominent areas in all 23 of Rapid City’s school buildings. A Rapid City Area Schools spokesperson told the publication that, altogether, it cost $2,800 to stencil the motto in all of the buildings.

Some students have pushed back against the law and said they want more inclusive messages in their schools. In May, students from Stevens High School, which is in Rapid City, suggested modifications that would acknowledge not all students are Christians, or even religious, by including Buddha, Yahweh and Allah, and some reference to science or spirits. The school board listened to the students but the school district did not change its course of action.


There are about 4.2 million practicing Jews in the United States according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study. That number rises to 6.7 million when considering people who consider themselves Jewish in a cultural or secular way, or are being raised by at least one Jewish adult. In 2017, the Pew Research Center estimated there were 3.45 million Muslims living in the United States, and, in 2015, the country’s Hindu population was considered to be 2.23 million.

There are also a considerable number of Americans with no religious affiliation at all. A 2015 Pew Research poll found that 34% to 36% of millennials don’t have a religious affiliation and a 2013 Pew Harris Poll found that 23% of all Americans were not religious. 

One student who advocated for modifications, Abigail Ryan, said to KOTA-TV, “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.”

South Dakota is not alone in its decision to require public schools to display the motto. According to The Washington Post, at least six states passed these kinds of laws in 2018 and another 10 have introduced or passed them this year. Kentucky schools are also getting ready to display the motto prominently in public schools this year.

Members of the American Civil Liberties Union in Kentucky wrote to lawmakers back in February, before the state’s version of the law was passed, to try and block the move.

“We ask you to refrain from mandating any religious observation or exercise of religion in our public schools,” they wrote. “We firmly believe that our legislature should be working to ensure that schools are adequately funded, that teachers are appropriately compensated, and that our students receive the highest quality education possible. “