Santa Fe School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290; 120 S. Ct. 2266; 147 L. Ed. 2d 295 (2000)

Santa Fe School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290; 120 S. Ct. 2266; 147 L. Ed. 2d 295 (2000)

Facts—Two sets of students and parents brought suit against the Santa Fe School District in Texas for policies related to student prayers at football games. These revised policies permitted students to decide by election whether or not to have such prayers and, if so, to elect a student to deliver them. The District Court upheld this provision as long as the invocations were required to be “nonsectarian and nonproselytizing.” The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that, even after being so modified, the provisions for such prayers violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Question—Do student-led, student-initiated invocations broadcast at public school football games violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment as applied to the states by the Fourteenth?


ReasonsJ. Stevens (6–3). Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Lee v. Weisman (1992) dealt with school graduations, it was applicable here. The majoritarian process utilized to decide whether to have invocations and who will deliver them was the result of a school decision to allow prayers to be delivered. The fact that one of the purposes of such prayers was to solemnize the event, suggested that the school was endorsing religious expression. This message of endorsement would be enhanced by the fact that the invocations would be deliv- ered at regularly scheduled events on school property. Such endorsement would convey the impression that believers are “insiders” and others are “outsiders.” In addition to those students who attend games because they believe extracur- ricular activities are an integral part of their school experience, team members, cheerleaders, band members, and others may have little choice but to attend and be subjected to what they find to be “a personally offensive religious ritual.” The school has evinced an unconstitutional purpose of facilitating prayer. The dis- trict’s “governmental electoral mechanism . . . turns the school into a forum for religious debate . . . [and] empowers the student body majority with the authority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages.”

C.J. Rehnquist’s dissent claimed that the “tone” of the majority opinion “bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life.” The Court’s decision was premature in enjoining a policy that the school had yet to put into practice. Rehnquist pointed out that the school district had cited a number of secular purposes including that of solemnizing sporting events, promoting good sportsmanship and safety, and establishing an appropriate environment for the activity. In contrast to Lee v. Weisman, Rehnquist believed that the speech here was not school-created, but student-created, and a form of “private speech” not enjoined by the establishment clause.

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