of Discussion and Answers
Fe Independent School District, Petitioner v. Jane Doe
- Should students be allowed to pray before a football game?
Students are allowed to pray privately or in a group before a
game. As Justice Stevens commented, "Nothing in the Constitution
as interpreted by this Court prohibits any public school student
from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after
the school day. But the religious liberty protected by the Constitution
is abridged when the State affirmatively sponsors the particular
religious practice of prayer."
- Why would students want public prayer at a football game?
Answers will vary. Most will center on the safety of the players.
- Is there a difference between the silent prayer of an individual
or group and the prayer said in the football huddle with coaches?
Students have the right to pray alone or in a group and to discuss
their religious views with their peers as long as they are not
Teachers and school administrators are government representatives.
When acting in their official capacities, including coaching a
public school team, teachers may not engage in religious activities
with their students.
- Should a student be allowed to offer a nondenominational
prayer over the speaker system before a football game?
Students’ answers will vary according to their personal point
of view and their understanding of First Amendment principles.
Use this question for a civil discussion of the issue. List on
the board the pro and con sides.
- What was the Supreme Court decision?
- Did the Court agree with the School District that any restriction
on the prayer chosen by an elected student representative
would be a violation of the free speech rights of students?
- Did the Court agree that the Constitution does not allow
school officials to hold elections to decide whether and when
students should pray and that a prayer given over a school’s
public address system is not private speech?
After students discuss the issues and debate the likely Supreme
Court decision, tell them the answer is the second choice.
Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court:
"The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise
of religion does not supersede the fundamental limitations imposed
by the Establishment Clause. It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum,
the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone
to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise
act in a way which `establishes a [state] religion or religious
faith, or tends to do so.' " Id., at 587 (citations omitted) (quoting
Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U. S. 668, 678 (1984)). In this
case the District first argues that this principle is inapplicable
to its October policy because the messages are private student
speech, not public speech. It reminds us that "there is a crucial
difference between government speech endorsing religion,
which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech
endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses
protect." Board of Ed. of Westside Community Schools (Dist.
66) v. Mergens, 496 U. S. 226, 250 (1990) (opinion of O'Connor,
J.). We certainly agree with that distinction, but we are not
persuaded that the pregame invocations should be regarded as "private
Key points of the decision
- Government may not act in a way that establishes a state religion:
“The Constitution also requires that the Court keep in mind
the myriad, subtle ways in which Establishment Clause values
can be eroded, Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 694,
and guard against other different, yet equally important,
constitutional injuries. One is the mere passage by the District
of a policy that has the purpose and perception of government
establishment of religion.”
“Elections and a student speaker do not turn public speech into
private speech. Although the ultimate choice of student speaker
is attributable to the students, the District’s decision to hold
the constitutionally problematic election is clearly a choice
attributable to the State.”
- Pregame invocations are public speech
Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said, "The
delivery of such a message — 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."
- Government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in
“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.”
- Minority and majority views should receive the same respect
“Like the student referendum for funding in Southworth,
this student election does nothing to protect minority views but
rather places the students who hold such views at the mercy of
the majority. Because ‘fundamental rights may not be submitted
to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections,’ West
Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U. S. 624, 638 (1943),
the District's elections are insufficient safeguards of diverse
- In what way is prayer given by an elected student over a
public address system similar to prayer given at a graduation
- Both are a form of coercion
Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court
in Sante Fe Independent School District, Petitioner v.
Jane Doe: “The Court rejects the District’s argument that
its policy is distinguishable from the graduation prayer in
Lee because it does not coerce students to participate in
religious observances. The first part of this argument — that
there is no impermissible government coercion because the
pre-game messages are the product of student choices — fails
- Both by perception or practice imply government sponsorship
In a 6-3 opinion, the Court
concluded in Sante Fe that prayers said over a
public address system were public speech authorized by a government
policy and taking place on government property at government-sponsored
school-related events. The school district’s modified policy
allowing students to vote on holding the prayer gave the perception
of and actually were government endorsement of religion.