Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000)

Santa Fe Independent School District is an important case on the controversial subject of prayer in public schools. In it the Supreme Court reiterated that any state-promoted prayer in public schools is unconstitutional, even in arguably less intrusive settings. At the same time the Court clarified that truly voluntary student prayer in schools is constitutionally permissible.

Santa Fe involved a challenge to a school district policy governing prayer at football games. The policy, which was enacted as an attempt to shift the decision on whether to have a prayer from school administrators to students, provided for a bifurcated student election on prayer. Students would first vote by secret ballot on whether to have a prayer at games, and if the students chose to have a prayer, a second election was held to elect a student to pray. Pursuant to this policy the students elected to have a prayer at games and chose a student to say the prayer.

The Supreme Court, in a six-to-three decision, held the policy violated the Establishment Clause, primarily applying a two-part coercion analysis previously developed in Lee v. Weisman (1992). That test first examines whether the prayer can be attributed to the state, and second examines whether it results in substantial coercion of nonadherents. The Court found both prongs met.

The Court’s analysis began with an extended discussion of why the prayers in question were not merely private student speech but were the result of significant state involvement. It rejected the school district’s primary argument that having the students decide whether to pray acted as a ‘‘circuit breaker’’ that cut off any state involvement. It noted that even posing the question promoted prayer, because it initiated a process that in all likelihood would result in a decision to pray. In addition, the setting in which the pregame prayer was delivered, including being part of a school-sponsored function and use of the school’s public address system, fostered perceptions of the state’s involvement. The Court concluded that an ‘‘objective observer’’ would perceive the prayer as approved by the school.

After establishing that the pregame prayer was attributable to the government and not merely private student speech, the Court explained why it was coercive and therefore unconstitutional. It rejected the school’s argument that football games were voluntary and therefore lacked state coercion, noting that many students, such as players, band members, and cheerleaders, were required to attend the games. More importantly, the Court noted the important role played by extracurricular activities in high school, which creates a strong desire to participate and even social pressure to be involved. The Court stated that the state cannot take advantage of this pressure to coerce those in attendance to participate in a religious exercise.

The Court concluded its opinion by giving two additional reasons why the prayer policy was invalid. First, the Court stated the clear purpose of the policy was to promote prayer, which violated the establishment clause requirement that government acts have a secular purpose. Both the terms of the policy and the history leading to its adoption left no doubt that the school district was endorsing the practice of prayer. Second, the Court said the policy was also invalid because the election process permitted a majoritarian view to be imposed on religious minorities.

The Court’s decision in Santa Fe fits within the Court’s previous establishment clause jurisprudence, but is important in several respects. First, it made clear that simply turning over to students the final decision on whether to pray at school functions does not negate broader concerns about state involvement. Second, the Court clarified that coercion concerns are not limited to mandatory or de facto mandatory activities, such as graduations, but also apply to activities of a more voluntary nature that can be viewed as a part of ordinary student life. Perhaps most important, Santa Fe affirmed that the state has no business promoting prayer in public schools and any attempt to do so will be unconstitutional. That message is not new, but Santa Fe illustrates just how far the principle applies, extending it to even more subtle forms of state promotion.

At the same time, the Court drew a distinction in its analysis between state-promoted prayer, which is unconstitutional, and voluntary student prayer, which is not only permitted but is protected speech. The Court came back to this distinction several times in its analysis, emphasizing that its decision was not meant to prohibit ‘‘any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday.’’ This distinction between voluntary student prayer on the one hand and statesponsored prayer on the other is the central consideration in analyzing school prayer cases and best balances the competing constitutional concerns that are present.

MARK W. CORDES

References and Further Reading

  • Cordes, Mark W., Prayer in Public Schools after Santa Fe Independent School District, Kentucky Law Journal 90 (2001–2002): 1–73.
  • Smith, Rodney K. Public Prayer and the Constitution. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 1987. Cases and Statutes Cited Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992)

See also Bible Readings in Public Schools; Establishment Clause Doctrine: Supreme Court Jurisprudence; Prayer in Public Schools; Secular Purpose

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