Points of Discussion and Answers

Santa Fe Independent School District, Petitioner v. Jane Doe

  1. 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."

  2. Why would students want public prayer at a football game?

    Answers will vary. Most will center on the safety of the players.

  3. 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 disruptive.

    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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 speech."

    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 religious exercise

      “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 student speech.”

  6. In what way is prayer given by an elected student over a public address system similar to prayer given at a graduation ceremony?

    • 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 of religion

      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.