By: Libby Skarin, Policy Director, ACLU SD

Each year around this time I find myself inadvertently humming “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” as I settle back into office life. Though it’s not quite the holidays, the end of March signals a time of minor celebration around the ACLU offices because it marks the end of the year’s legislative session.

In my experience, no two sessions are the same – each brings different issues and different battles. What ties them together is that each is a roller coaster of issues, political theater, wins, and losses. Let’s parse through some of the major moments of 2017:

Reproductive Rights

This year we saw the South Dakota Legislature make another shameful attempt to restrict reproductive rights with the introduction of HB 1189, a bill that would have banned a common, extremely safe method of abortion. It was therefore an enormous victory when the first committee to address the bill tabled it and thus ensured it wouldn’t become law. This victory is also a win for the state coffers, which would have taken a major hit had the unconstitutional abortion ban ended up in the courts.

Immigration and Refugees

Anti-Muslim sentiment reared its ugly head in the 2017 session manifesting in thinly-veiled attacks on immigrants, refugees, and a major Muslim civil rights organization. A legally-flawed bill that would have given the state authority over refugee resettlement (an action that is squarely in the purview of the federal government) thankfully was amended down to a simple reporting requirement.

Perhaps more troubling were two resolutions: the first, SCR 7, which “urge[d] law enforcement in government agencies in South Dakota to suspend all contacts and outreach activities with the Council on American Islamic Relations” was a head-scratcher for numerous reasons. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is a well-established civil rights organization which exists to “enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.” In addition to having no ties to terrorism and actually promoting positive relationships with law enforcement, the group has no chapters in South Dakota. Watching this resolution get crushed on a 9-0 vote was wonderful on its own, but even better was the amazing, diverse, passionate group of advocates who traveled to Pierre to stand up for Muslims in South Dakota. This group, including law enforcement officers, immigration attorneys, faith leaders, and more, reminded me of the amazing and inspiring things that happen when citizens come together to stand up for what’s right.

The last in this ugly series of legislative attempts was SCR 15. The resolution, filed at the end of February, was initially for the purpose of “expressing a lack of confidence in the refugee resettlement program.” After a grueling, hours-long hearing at which dedicated advocates from all walks of life testified against this offensive resolution, the committee went into recess. Once they returned, instead of putting a stop to the resolution they significantly amended it, and changed its purpose to “commending President Donald J. Trump in his commitment to keeping the country safe from radical Islamic terrorism.” This disrespectful maneuver kept the resolution alive until it could be heard on the Senate floor. Though the measure should have been stopped much sooner, the Senate ultimately did the right thing and tabled the resolution, signaling its demise for the year.

First Amendment

For some reason, it’s rare that we get to work on clear free speech and protest issues in South Dakota, but this year was a definite exception. We saw two bills targeting the right to protest. The first, HB 1145, was pulled before its scheduled first hearing (the testimony I prepared on the bill is archived here). The second bill restricting free speech did not, unfortunately, meet the same end.

That bill, SB 176, began as a “vehicle bill” (which is a bill with no substantive text that can be used to introduce an entirely new bill after the bill introduction deadline). In mid-February, the bill’s text was swapped out and replaced with language intended to restrict protest. Meanwhile, proponents made it clear that this bill was crafted to be a pre-emptive response to pipeline protests that could come to the state. This put South Dakota in a category of states across the country filing legislative attacks against free speech, and even the United Nations took note. Some of the more egregious parts of the legislation were amended out, though the anti-free speech sentiments remained. The bill made it to the Governor’s desk and he quickly signed it. We will be monitoring the implementation of this bill, particularly if pipeline protests materialize in South Dakota.

LGBT Rights

As has been the case during every session in recent memory, 2017 saw no shortage of bills targeting LGBT South Dakotans. The first, SB 115, was substantially similar to 2016’s HB 1008 which would’ve prohibited transgender students from using school facilities in accordance with their gender identity. We were geared up and ready to fight this bill all the way, but were met with a very welcome – though anticlimactic – surprise when the bill’s prime sponsors pulled it from consideration before the legislation had its first hearing. At that point we thanked the supporters who made the trek to Pierre to oppose the bill, vowed to remain vigilant, did a little victory dance, and shifted our focus to a perhaps more subtle, but still harmful bill – SB 149.

If you’re reading this blog, I think you probably know what SB 149 is all about. In short, it’s the bill that allows child placement agencies to refuse services – including adoption, foster care, and more – on the basis of the agency’s religious beliefs. Though the opponents presented SB 149 as a bill to “protect religious freedom,” the text does anything but. Instead, it allows agencies to discriminate against anyone who doesn’t fit within their worldview; though the primary target is likely LGBT people, agencies could refuse to serve people on a much broader basis. They could turn away loving couples because they’re of the “wrong” faith, or because of a previous divorce, or an interfaith couple, or anyone else they deem unacceptable under their moral convictions. The fight against this bill was long and arduous, and unfortunately, SB 149 was passed into law and signed by the Governor. For more on our fight against this bill, look here and here.

Criminal Justice

With the many controversial and splashy topics addressed in the 2017 legislative session, it was easy to miss some of the more nuanced bills filed. One bill worth noting is HB 1183 – a bill tackling some of the state’s major issues relating to the treatment of mental health in the criminal justice system. This bill - which passed and was signed by the Governor in mid-March – made many much-needed changes to the system in South Dakota, including one the ACLU of South Dakota deemed critically important. Previously, South Dakota statute had no deadline and left people languishing in jails awaiting mental health services. The new law requires mental health competency evaluations to be completed within 21 days of the court’s order. This step brings South Dakota closer to creating a truly fair criminal justice system.

That's a wrap!

Suffice to say, a lot happened in the 2017 legislative session. We didn’t always win, but we certainly saw several critical victories. We’ll spend the next 9 months until the 2018 session doing what we always do: working to advance and defend civil rights and civil liberties in our great state. We’d love to have you join us!

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