Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe

Decided on June 19, 2000; 530 US 290

Permitting student-led and student-initiated prayer on state run school ground at
football games violates the Establishment Clause



A. Issues Discussed:
Establishment of religion

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does Santa Fe Independent School District's policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violate the Establishment Clause?


A. Background:

"Prior to 1995, a student elected as Santa Fe High School's student council chaplain delivered a prayer over the public address system before each home varsity football game. Respondents, Mormon and Catholic students or alumni and their mothers, filed a suit challenging this practice and others under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. While the suit was pending, petitioner school district (District) adopted a different policy, which authorizes two student elections, the first to determine whether 'invocations' should be delivered at games, and the second to select the spokesperson to deliver them. After the students held elections authorizing such prayers and selecting a spokesperson, the District Court entered an order modifying the policy to permit only nonsectarian, nonproselytizing prayer. The Fifth Circuit held that, even as modified by the District Court, the football prayer policy was invalid."

On certiorari, the US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Anthony P. Griffin argued the cause for respondents. With him on the briefs were Douglas Laycock and Steven R. Shapiro.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Jewish Congress et al. by Walter E. Dellinger and Marc D. Stern; and for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs et al. by Derek H. Davis and Melissa Rogers.

Jay Alan Sekulow argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Colby M. May, James M. Henderson, Sr., Mark N. Troobnick, Walter M. Weber, Paul D. Clement, John G. Stepanovich, Thomas P. Monaghan, Stuart J. Roth, John P. Tuskey, Joel H. Thornton, David A. Cortman, and Kelly Shackelford.

John Cornyn, Attorney General of Texas, argued the cause for the State of Texas et al. as amici curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Andy Taylor, First Assistant Attorney General, Linda S. Eads, Deputy Attorney General, Gregory S. Coleman, Solicitor General, Julie Caruthers Parsley, Deputy Solicitor General, and Meredith B. Parenti, Assistant Solicitor General.

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the Christian Legal Society by Steffen N. Johnson, Stephen M. Shapiro, Michael W. McConnell, and Kimberlee W. Colby; for Liberty Counsel et al. by Mathew D. Staver and Jerry Falwell, Jr.; for the Northstar Legal Center by Jordan W. Lorence; for Spearman Independent School District et al. by Roger D. Hepworth; for the Texas Association of School Boards Legal Assistance Fund by David M. Feldman and Myra C. Schexnayder; for the Texas Justice Foundation et al. by Linda L. Schlueter; for Senator James M. Inhofe et al. by Barry C. Hodge; for Congressman Steve Largent et al. by Brett M. Kavanaugh; for Marian Ward et al. by Kelly J. Coghlan; and for Texas Public School Students et al. by John L. Carter.


The Supreme Court held that:

"The District's policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violates the Establishment Clause.

The District argues unpersuasively that...the policy's messages are private student speech, not public speech. The delivery of a message such as the invocation here--on school property, at school-sponsored events, over the school's public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer--is not properly characterized as 'private' speech...

The Court rejects the District's argument that its policy is distinguishable from...graduation prayer...because it does not coerce students to participate in religious observances... The second part of the District's argument--that there is no coercion here because attendance at an extracurricular event, unlike a graduation ceremony, is voluntary--is unpersuasive. For some students, such as cheerleaders, members of the band, and the team members themselves, attendance at football games is mandated, sometimes for class credit. The District's argument also minimizes the immense social pressure, or truly genuine desire, felt by many students to be involved in the extracurricular event that is American high school football. The Constitution demands that schools not force on students the difficult choice between whether to attend these games or to risk facing a personally offensive religious ritual...

Through its election scheme, the District has established a governmental mechanism that turns the school into a forum for religious debate and empowers the student body majority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages. The award of that power alone is not acceptable. For the foregoing reasons, the policy is invalid on its face."

The United States Supreme Court affirmed the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit judgment.

Justice Vote: 6 Pro vs. 3 Con
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined dissenting opinionx)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)

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