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State’s Religious Community Weighs in on Bear Butte Controversy

February 12, 2007

South Dakota’s religious community is backing a bill prohibiting liquor licenses from being issued within a four-mile area of Bear Butte in Western South Dakota. The controversy erupted last year when the Meade County commission approved a liquor license for a bar and campground at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that’s located near the mountain. Gary Nesdahl with the Association of Christian Churches of South Dakota said they support a buffer zone because Bear Butte is sacred to the Native people.

“I’ve heard lots of personal and heartfelt testimony about the power of the traditional religion to act as a medicine against the power of alcohol. I see that we have two very important symbols here. Bear Butte symbolizes the history, traditions and religion of a people. And moving the Sturgis rally into the country to avoid the legal consequences of alcoholic behavior symbolizes something else entirely.”

Opponents say the issue is local and that the state shouldn’t be dictating how a person uses their own property. But Nesdahl disagrees, saying that argument isn’t consistent with how South Dakota law works.

“Collectively, we have always reserved the right to determine matters of public good. All of our zoning powers depend on our ability and our tradition to be able to determine that the public interest outweighs particular financial interests or personal interests in some situations.”

Nesdahl believes it is a matter of respect.

“The Association of Christian Churches respects the ability of the people to worship in their own way. This tradition of Bear Butte being part of the spiritual life of the Native Americans is not a new issue. A number of different tribes of Native Americans has been there for hundred of years, if not thousands. I think it’s very much a matter of respect.”

The House Local Government Committee will continue hearings Tuesday on HB-1227.

David Law/Jamie Folsom, Public News Service - SD