Public Address Prayer at Football Games

Case Summary: Sante Fe Independent School District, Petitioner v. Jane Doe, individually and as next friend for her minor children, JANE and JOHN DOE, et al. (2000)

The Situation in Santa Fe, Texas
Before 1995, students at Santa Fe High School elected a student council chaplain who delivered a prayer over the public address system before each varsity football game for the entire season. This practice, along with others, was challenged in District Court as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. While action on this case was pending in the District Court, the school district adopted a different policy that permitted, but did not require, prayer initiated and led by a student at all home games. The District Court ordered that policy be modified to permit only nonsectarian, nonproselytizing prayer. The Court of Appeals held that, even as modified by the District Court, the football prayer policy was invalid. The Supreme Court granted the school district's petition for certiorari to review that decision. (Certiorari means “to be more fully informed” in Latin. In a writ of certiorari, the Supreme Court directs the lower court to review a case.)

The First Amendment Issue
The first Clause in the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The First Amendment also guarantees freedom of speech.

In Lee v. Weisman, (1992), the Supreme Court held that a prayer delivered by a rabbi at a middle school graduation ceremony violated that Clause. Does a nondenominational prayer initiated by a student given over a public address system before a school’s football game violate the Establishment Clause or is it an expression of freedom of speech?

What Do You Think?
In 2000, the Supreme Court heard Sante Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, the first time since 1992 that the Court considered the constitutionality of school-sponsored prayer. Answer the following questions based upon what you know about the First Amendment, the Supreme Court decisions in Board of Ed. of Westside Community Schools (Dist. 66) v. Mergens and Lee v. Weisman, and your personal point of view.

  1. Should students be allowed to pray before a football game?

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

  3. Is there a difference between the silent prayer of an individual or group and the prayer said in the football huddle with coaches?

  4. Should a student be allowed to offer a nondenominational prayer over the speaker system before a football game?

  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?

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