Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38; 105 S. Ct. 2479; 86 L. Ed. 2d 29 (1985)

Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38; 105 S. Ct. 2479; 86 L. Ed. 2d 29 (1985)

Facts—Ismael Jaffree filed a complaint on behalf of his minor children against the Mobile County School Board, various school officials, and several teachers. He sought a declaratory judgment and an injunction restraining the defendants from allowing regular religious services or other forms of religious expression. An Alabama statute permitted one minute of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer” each day in the public schools. A U.S. District Court found the statute permissible on the grounds that a state could establish a state religion if it chose, and the Court of Appeals reversed the decision.

Question—Does a state statute that the state has amended to permit a moment of silence for “meditation and voluntary prayer” violate the establishment clause?


ReasonsJ. Stevens (6–3). The Court’s affirmance of the Court of Appeals’ reversal “makes it unnecessary to comment at length on the district court’s remarkable conclusion that the federal constitution imposes no obstacle to Alabama’s establishment of a state religion.” It is firmly embedded in our constitutional jurisprudence “that the several states have no greater power to restrain the individual freedoms protected by the First Amendment than does the Congress.” Here, as in West Virginia v. Barnette, “we are faced with a state measure which forces an individual, as part of his daily life . . . to be an instrument for fostering public adherence to an ideological point of view he finds unacceptable.” The Court has concluded that the First Amendment embraces “the right to select any religious faith or none at all.” Lemon v. Kurtzman (403 U.S. 602) held that in construing the establishment clause a statute (1) must have a secular legislative purpose, (2) must neither advance nor inhibit the practice of religion, and (3) must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion. The second and third criteria will not be considered “if a statute does not have a clearly secular purpose.” The Alabama statute has none.

J. O’Connor, in a concurring opinion, indicated that moment of silence laws were not per se unconstitutional but could become so when specifically designed to aid religion.

J. White, J. Burger, and J. Rehnquist wrote dissents. They did not think the addition of language specifically permitting prayer constituted an undue establishment of religion.

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