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]
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.