Wallace v. Jaffree
Decided June 4, 1985, 472 US 38

Alabama's statute allowing time for "voluntary prayer" constituted
endorsement of religion by the state and was therefore unconstitutional.


A. Issues Discussed: Prayer in schools

B. Legal Question Presented:

Is an Alabama Statute, which authorized a period of silence for "meditation or voluntary prayer," a law respecting the establishment of religion within the meaning of the First Amendment?

A. Background:

"Appellee Ishmael Jaffree... filed a complaint on behalf of three of his minor children... 'seeking principally a declaratory judgment and an injunction restraining the Defendants... from maintaining or allowing the maintenance of regular religious prayer services or other forms of religious observances in the Mobile County Public Schools in violation of the First Amendment as made applicable to states by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.'

The complaint further alleged... that the defendant teachers had 'on a daily basis' led their classes in saying certain prayers in unison...the appellees challenged the constitutionality of three Alabama statutes: 16-1-20, 16-1-20.1, and 16-1-20.2.

[At] an evidentiary hearing on appellees' motion for a preliminary injunction,... State Senator Donald G. Holmes... 'prime sponsor' of the bill... explained that the bill was an 'effort to return voluntary prayer to our public schools... Apart from [that] purpose... Senator Holmes unequivocally testified that he had 'no other purpose in mind.'... The District Court entered a preliminary injunction... [on the grounds that] 16-1-20.1 and 16-1-20.2 did not reflect a clearly secular purpose."

Following a trial on the merits, the District Court reviewed "what it perceived to be newly discovered historical evidence, [and] concluded that 'the establishment clause of the first amendment to the United States Constitution does not prohibit the state from establishing a religion.' In a separate opinion, the District Court dismissed appellees' challenge to the three Alabama statutes because of a failure to state any claim for which relief could be granted. The court's dismissal of this challenge was also based on its conclusion that the Establishment Clause did not bar the States from establishing a religion.

The Court of Appeals consolidated the two cases; not surprisingly, it reversed. The Court of Appeals noted that this Court had considered and had rejected the historical arguments that the District Court found persuasive, and that the District Court had misapplied the doctrine of stare decisis. The Court of Appeals then held that the teachers' religious activities violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."

On appeal, the US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Ronnie L. Williams argued the cause and filed a brief for appellees.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Jack D. Novik, Burt Neuborne, John Sexton, and Nathan Z. Dershowitz; for the American Jewish Congress et al. by Marc D. Stern, Justin J. Finger, and Jeffrey P. Sinensky; and for Lowell P. Weicker, Jr., by Stanley A. Twardy, Jr.

John S. Baker, Jr., argued the cause for appellants in both cases and filed briefs for appellant Wallace;

Deputy Solicitor General Bator argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General Reynolds, Michael W. McConnell, and Brian K. Landsburg;

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of Delaware et al. by Charles M. Oberly III, Attorney General of Delaware, Fred S. Silverman, State Solicitor, and Susan H. Kirk-Ryan and Barbara MacDonald, Deputy Attorneys General, Robert K. Corbin, Attorney General of Arizona, Linley E. Pearson, Attorney General of Indiana, William J. Guste, Jr., Attorney General of Louisiana, Michael C. Turpen, Attorney General of Oklahoma, and Gerald L. Baliles, Attorney General of Virginia; for the State of Connecticut by Joseph I. Lieberman, Attorney General, Henry S. Cohn, Assistant Attorney General, and Clarine Nardi Riddle; for the Center for Judicial Studies by Charles E. Rice; for the Christian Legal Society et al. by Forest D. Montgomery and Samuel E. Ericsson; for the Freedom Council by James J. Knicely and John W. Whitehead; for the Legal Foundation of America by David Crump; for the Moral Majority, Inc., by William Bentley Ball and Philip J. Murren; and for Winston C. Anderson et al. by Alfred J. Mainini.


"...The First Amendment was adopted to curtail Congress' power to interfere with the individual's freedom to believe, to worship, and to express himself in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience, and the Fourteenth Amendment imposed the same substantive limitations on the States' power to legislate...

...One of the well-established criteria for determining the constitutionality of a statute under the Establishment Clause is that the statute must have a secular legislative purpose. The First Amendment requires that a statute must be invalidated if it is entirely motivated by a purpose to advance religion.

The record here not only establishes that [Alabama statute] 16-1-20.1's purpose was to endorse religion, it also reveals that the enactment of the statute was not motivated by any clearly secular purpose... The State's endorsement, by enactment of 16-1-20.1, of prayer activities at the beginning of each schoolday is not consistent with the established principle that the government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion."

The US Supreme Court held that "Section 16-1-20.1 is a law respecting the establishment of religion and thus violates the First Amendment," and affirmed the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit judgment.

Justice Vote: 6 Pro vs. 3 Con
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion )
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmance of the judgment of the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit; the Supreme Court affirmed in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.