Rapid City, S.D.: The City Without Separation of Church and State

Despite scrutiny, city officials are vowing not to remove Christian prayer at City Council meetings

In South Dakota, city government officials are doubling down on their unconstitutional practice of beginning each city council meeting with a Christian prayer--despite objections from residents and the threat of a lawsuit.

The battle began earlier this year in Rapid City, South Dakota, when a teenage atheist who attends the city council meetings complained about the mandatory moment of prayer that opens each gathering. But instead of reconsidering the council’s religious stance, one council member ridiculed the teenager’s objection by giving him scripture to read. Others suggested the council should draft a prayer policy under the mistaken assumption that this could protect the unconstitutional tradition from becoming the subject of a lawsuit. 

Even the Mayor weighed in--on the side of the prayer supporters.

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"We are going to stand and fight this nonsensical effort to remove prayer from our meetings. We aren’t backing down," wrote city Mayor Sam Kooiker in a e-newsletter to all the city’s employees.

Meanwhile, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national non-profit group that seeks to protect First Amendment rights and separation of church and state, began sending the city council letters warning that the prayer practice is unconstitutional and it will pursue a lawsuit, if necessary.

“No government official has the 'right' to use his or her government office, power or position to conduct a religious exercise at a government meeting,” one of the group’s letters explained.

Yet, the city council still isn’t backing down.

According to an article in theRapid City Journal, With a burst of Biblical quotes and decidedly defiant rhetoric, Rapid City Council members drew a clear line in the sand on pre-meeting prayer when they voted to draft a policy to fend off a lawsuit by a national nonprofit organization.”

The city council even held a speak out where prayer supporters made a series of ludicrous and unconstitutional claims, including the statement, “Any time God is taken out of our government in any way, that country starts to slide into chaos.”

Unsurprisingly, Christian news organizations are backing the prayer practice and skewing the story, reporting that “residents and area pastors also turned out to the meeting and spent 40 minutes speaking about why prayer is vital in the nation today.”

But that’s only half the story. Freedom From Religion Foundation has reported that its received multiple complaints from city residents who are upset both by the prayer practice but also by the city’s response to the growing controversy.

As the group’s letter to the city reads, “We are troubled by what took place at the City Council meeting on February 4. It is shameful that some City Council members used heated rhetoric in asserting they want to 'fight' and that FFRF is a 'bully' in simply asking for the council to follow the Constitution..... The Mayor's message marginalizes those who disagree and affirms that continuing with Christian prayers has the full support from the Mayor and the City ... FFRF would like to reiterate that non-Christian and non-citizens are a part of your community.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation suggests that the city council substitute the prayer with a moment of silence, but Mayor Kooiker has “vowed” that the city will never give up the Christian tradition.

Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and the author of "A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home," forthcoming from Zuccotti Park Press.