The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Civil Rights Monitor

capitol photo

The CIVIL RIGHTS MONITOR is a quarterly publication that reports on civil rights issues pending before the three branches of government. The Monitor also provides a historical context within which to assess current civil rights issues. Back issues of the Monitor are available through this site. Browse or search the archives


Volume 11 No 4

The following is a review of civil rights and related cases from the last session of the U.S. Supreme court not previously reported in the monitor. The cases focus on religious liberty, the separation of church and state and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Supreme Court Rules School Sponsored Prayer Unconstitutional

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe

On June 19, 2000, in the case of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe (99-62), the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that a Texas public school district's practice of opening high school football games with a prayer is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court first ruled against school-sponsored prayer in 1962 in Engel v. Vitale. Since then, the Court has consistently ruled against school-sponsored worship, while permitting voluntary student-initiated religious activities. The Santa Fe case began in 1995 when the parents of two students sued their Texas school district in federal court following adoption of a policy allowing students to elect a classmate to deliver a prayer over the stadium's public address system prior to football games.


Prior to 1995, the Santa Fe High School student who occupied the school's elective office of student council chaplain delivered a prayer over the public address system before each varsity football game for the entire season. This practice, along with others, was challenged in District Court as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment which provides "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." While these proceedings were pending in the District Court, the school district adopted a different policy that permits, but does not require, prayer initiated and led by a student at all home games. The District Court entered an order modifying that policy to permit only nonsectarian, non-proselytizing prayer. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that, even as modified by the District Court, the football prayer policy was invalid.


Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court, upholding the decision of the Court of Appeals, saying "the simple enactment of this policy, with the purpose and perception of school endorsement of student prayer, was a constitutional violation." He continues, " such a system encourages divisiveness along religious lines and threatens the imposition of coercion upon those students not desiring to participate in a religious exercise. Simply by establishing this school-related procedure, which entrusts the inherently nongovernmental subject of religion to a majoritarian vote, a constitutional violation has occurred."

Joining Justice Stevens in his opinion were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

Chief Justice Rehnquist issued a strongly worded dissent joined by Justices Thomas and Scalia, charging that the majority's opinion "bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life." The dissent focused primarily, however, on the majority's willingness to strike down the policy on its face before it was implemented. While it was possible that the student election process could lead to Christian prayers before every football game, the dissenters argued, it was also possible that the election might not focus on prayer but on some other characteristic of the candidates themselves. The dissenters were unwilling to strike down the policy until there was evidence that students campaigned on prayer. The dissenters also argued that the policy had a "plausible" secular purpose of solemnizing the event and promoting good sportsmanship.


Santa Fe represents a strong reaffirmation of the Court's earlier holdings prohibiting school-sponsored and promoted religious activity in school-run events. Those factors indicating that the religious activity is in fact school-sponsored include whether the activity takes place in a "regularly scheduled, school-sponsored function conducted on school property" with an audience assembled by school officials. While the courts will also scrutinize any policy to see if it favors religious speech or facilitates majoritarian religious preferences through an election process, the absence of these factors will not necessarily save a practice of student-led prayer. On the contrary, Santa Fe indicates that the Court sees nothing special about "student-initiated" religious conduct when it takes place within a school-sponsored event. Absent a showing that a school has truly created some type of open forum for student expression, one that is open to "indiscriminate use...by the student body generally," student-led prayer at any school-sponsored event must be considered unconstitutional.

The case does not conclude that students do not have the right to pray in public schools. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, stated "Private voluntary prayer is not only permitted in public schools; it is constitutionally protected." He continues, "The Supreme Court wisely has maintained that this type of prayer is not the same as officially supported and conducted prayers read over a loudspeaker on behalf of all those present. Such individual, voluntary prayer is different not in degree, but in kind from officially selected and sanctioned public prayer."

To view the Court's opinion on the web visit: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/99-62.ZO.html

Back line Continue

Our Members