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Girls Staters Grapple with First Amendment and Prayer

Ah, Girls State, where the best and brightest young women from each town with a sufficiently ambitious American Legion Auxiliary post come to practice Constitutional government.

Alas, the editorial in the final 2019 issue of the Sacajawea Scroll, the official publication of South Dakota Girls State, suggests this year’s Girls Staters came away with an unclear picture of what comes first: their First Amendment rights or the demands of their American Legion Auxiliary sponsors that they participate in a religious activity:

As stated in the ALA South Dakota Girl State Oath, delegates need to “abide by the judgement of those responsible” and “respect the rights of fellow citizens.”

But which one comes first, delegates’ rights as citizens or the judgement of… those responsible for this Americanism program?

Some students sat during a general assembly prayer demonstrating their right to freedom of religion. They were told they had to stand.

Should students have the choice of participation in activities concerning beliefs they don’t conform to or should they participate because in the eye of those responsible for the program it is seen as disrespectful not to? [editorial, “Rights as Girls Citizens Are Unclear,” Sacajawea Scroll, 2019.06.01]

Students take Girls State Citizen Oath, Girls State, USD, Vermillion, South Dakota, 2019.05.27; photo posted by ALA South Dakota Girl State to Facebook, 2019.05.28.
Students take Girls State Citizen Oath, Girls State, USD, Vermillion, South Dakota, 2019.05.27; photo posted by ALA South Dakota Girl State to Facebook, 2019.05.28.

If Girls State were a public school activity, the First Amendment answer would be clear: public schools cannot force students to participate in any sort of religious expression. The American Legion Auxiliary is a private organization, and girls participate voluntarily, so the Establishment Clause does not apply, and one could argue that the Auxiliary can safely impose a pray-to-play rule.

However, Girls State has been held on a public university campus since 1985. And more importantly, Girls State, like Boys State, arose in the 1930s as a response to fascist indoctrination. Inculcating Constitutional principles in our young people requires a strict adherence to those principles. We can identify many traits and behaviors that students must follow to properly practice American Constitutional democracy, but requiring students to stand for a religious ceremony is at best a debatable component of necessary Constitutional behavior.

At least the journalists at Girls State were allowed to invite that debate. Such debate is healthy and necessary when figuring out how to balance the competing beliefs of diverse citizens in a pluralistic democracy like Girls State, South Dakota, and the United States.


  1. Nick Nemec 2019-06-09 09:58

    What’s with the “Girls State Citizenship Oath”? Thanks to birthright citizenship I’ve been a citizen of the United States for over 60 years and have never had to take a citizenship oath. I did have to take an oath of office to hold an elected public office and to serve in the US military, but never for simply being a native born American.

  2. chris 2019-06-09 10:09

    …And this is where we grow our Susan Collinses.

  3. John Dale 2019-06-09 10:49

    The continuum of human rights assignment (the first of which is the human right not to be murdered IMHO) challenges even the most adept moral philosophers.

    Youthful neural plasticity is a favorite exploitative ground for all sides. So, who is right?

    The answer to this question lies with “right vs wrong”. Bone’s Booth’s unapologetic corruption notwithstanding, I believe there is moral “right” and moral “wrong”, and that means to an end are of utmost importance.

    The right not to be murdered comes first while human agency should come after adequate teaching of basic logic and critical thinking.

    I personally decry any agency or organization who does not get the order of operations correct:

    1 – right to not be murdered from conception
    2 – teaching of logic and moral responsibility (there is right and wrong, and the justification for this can be internally assessed and assigned, not requiring an external omniscient actor)
    3 – agency – “take the keys” at 18

    If we get these things incorrect, in the long term we should expect extreme social, cultural, economic, and political polarization and violence in the streets.

  4. Chris S. 2019-06-09 11:24

    At the mock political convention held at Boys State back when I was a participant, our city (I think it was Cleveland? It was a long time ago) wanted to participate in debating one of the topics on the floor. The chair didn’t recognize us (probably because he simply didn’t see us) and closed debate. As a way of protest, we decided to abstain when the roll call vote came. When our speaker did that and began explaining why we were abstaining, Joyce Hazeltine came flying out to the lectern to angrily berate us and tell us we couldn’t do that.

    Granted the whole thing was an inconsequential exercise, but if the point was to learn about the functioning of our government, I’m not sure what they thought they were teaching us. You don’t have the right to abstain from a vote at a party convention? (Most conventions don’t allow non-participants to run out on stage and yell at the delegates, either, but what the hey.)

    I know it’s a pretty trivial anecdote, but the Girls State story reminded me of it. Those organizations have a pretty rigid idea about what the participants are there to learn, and what they’re allowed to do. I didn’t find the experience all that useful to my understanding of our democracy.

  5. Robin Friday 2019-06-09 13:17

    Yes, John Dale, I agree. Girls (and boys) can internalize logic and right and wrong and it does not take an external omniscient other such as John Dale to decide these things for them or to impose his own ideas of moral responsibility.

  6. mike from iowa 2019-06-09 15:33

    The first thing they should teach at Boy’s/Girls State is there is no religious requirement to hold any elective office.

  7. Donald Pay 2019-06-09 17:26

    The American Legion violated those girls’ rights to religious liberty. Even worse, like all such forced religious experiences, it’s bad religion. Kinda reminds me of the Taliban.

    I salute the girls who sat. Like Christian martyrs, they stood up for what they believed, by sitting down. What’s next for next year’s Girls’ State? Electing the Grand Inquistior?

    Girls sitting is a mild protest, and is much more respectful than the boys in my 8th grade at Patrick Henry Junior High (not middle school then) in Sioux Falls, who would make “rude noises” during a mandatory minute of silence (for prayer) during lunch. Every so often it would smell like those noises were for reals, though it might have been the mystery meat they served.

    At any rate, we males of tender years survived semi-enforced forced religion at Patrick Henry. I don’t recall anyone ever getting detention for something like a fake fart, or even the rare real one during prayer time. But, I think that was the last or next to last year of that unconstitutional activity. Girls, try farting next time.

  8. Debbo 2019-06-09 18:27

    Apparently the adultish types in charge believe the Constitution is to be followed except when they can get away with ignoring parts they don’t like and imposing new parts they do like. I imagine they are mighty peeved that they’ve been caught…. again.

  9. jerry 2019-06-09 19:13

    The American Legion has always been anti-Democracy. The organization was founded by those who hated Democracy and the working people of this country. From strike breakers to coup organizers, they have never changed their right wing stripes.

  10. Debbo 2019-06-09 20:21

    Great link Jerry. It looks like now is not the first time the uber wealthy have tried to create a fascist USA.

    It reads to me that it’s more about the Legion leadership, not so much the rank and file members.

  11. Certain Inflatable Recreational Devices 2019-06-09 20:34

    John Dale is a raving lunatic. I am glad he undresses his lunacy in front of us.

  12. Donald Pay 2019-06-09 22:20

    Chris S. is my kind of guy. I think what his experience shows is they want to drill it into your head that this ain’t a real democracy, so don’t act like it is. You have to play by the rules, which means you play by THEIR rules, even if they are stupid rules. But, in the real world party conventions can be quite testy affairs, with rules fights and walkouts happening all the time.

    I never went to Boys State. That would have been the year I was volunteering for Gene McCarthy’s campaign for the June primary, and that was far more important than whatever happened at Boys State that year.

  13. Maddy 2019-06-10 10:58

    Not only did I write a bill about this in the Senate at Girls State this year, but I also was told that mentioning the First Amendment was incorrect in terms of this issue. Within the Senate we were asked to raise our hands on whether or not we were of the Christian religion. Although Girls Staters sitting may seem like a mild protest, it is over the top in terms of reality at Girls State. Girls were held under a certain stigma if they chose not to stand for the prayer, which, in this day in age, should not be as much of an issue as it is. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs without being judged.

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-06-10 12:11

    That’s disturbing, Maddy. I appreciate the American Legion Auxiliary’s effort to provide South Dakota’s young women this unique opportunity to learn about representative democracy through this simulation/practice, but if they are teaching theocracy, or if they are in the slightest promoting the unconstitutional notion that people of a certain religion are better qualified to participate in civic life than others, the Auxiliary is doing our young women and our community a disservice.

  15. Debbo 2019-06-10 13:34

    Sorry to hear you and your cohorts are being mistreated that way Maddy. It’s unconstitutional, as you seem to be well aware. It appears the ALA is teaching how government malfunctions.

  16. Porter Lansing 2019-06-10 13:48

    Looks like Republicans have infiltrated and indoctrinated Girls State. New name … #Girl’sHate?
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