Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe: Student-Initiated Prayer (06/19/2000)

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe

Does the Santa Fe Independent School District’s policy permitting student-initiated prayer at football games infringe upon the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment? 

Argued: 03/29/2000

Decision Date: 06/19/2000

Decision Record: 6-3; yes

Justices in Favor: John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer

Justices Dissenting: William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas

Effect of the Decision

This case ruled that school-sponsored, student initiated prayers are unconstitutional because it violates students’ First Amendment.

In Favor

In the favoring side of this case, on the side of the Santa Fe Independent School District, attorney Jay Alan Sekulow argued, “Santa Fe Independent School District has adopted a neutral policy which simply permits student led, student initiated speech at football games.

The policy, which can be found in its entirety at pages 104 and 105 of the joint appendix, allows for the individual student to determine the content of the message.

That message may include a prayer at the student’s discretion.

The policy does not violate the Establishment Clause, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is wrong and should be reversed.

The Santa Fe policy creates a venue for student expression.

It is neutral as to religious or secular speech.

The policy serves the important and legitimate goals of solemnizing the event, promoting good sportsmanship and student safety, and establishing the appropriate environment for competition.”


In the opposition, on the side of “Jane Doe,” attorney John Cornyn, “Respondents ask this Court to simply assume the worst of the school officials involved and of the students who will ultimately be the speakers under this policy, which has yet to be applied because its application has been suspended while this litigation goes forward.

We submit that under the standard of review of a facial challenge that respondents’ burden is heavy to show that it could never be constitutionally applied, and we believe this school district, just as in Agostini, is entitled to the presumption that school officials will faithfully discharge their duties according to the law, as laid down by this Court.

There is no evidence to support the conclusions offered by the respondents that this is somehow a sham, or a pretext.

Indeed, the trial court below found that any incidents which gave rise to this litigation were isolated incidents.”


On the majority side, also the affirming side, Justice Stevens wrote the opinion. He wrote, “This policy likewise does not survive a facial challenge because it impermissibly imposes upon the student body a majoritarian election on the issue of prayer. Through its election scheme, the District has established a governmental electoral mechanism that turns the school into a forum for religious debate. It further empowers the student body majority with the authority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages. The award of that power alone, regardless of the students’ ultimate use of it, is not acceptable.23Like the referendum in Board of Regents of Univ. of Wis. System v. Southworth, 529 U.S. ___ (2000), the election mechanism established by the District undermines the essential protection of minority viewpoints. Such a system encourages divisiveness along religious lines and threatens the imposition of coercion upon those students not desiring to participate in a religious exercise. Simply by establishing this school-related procedure, which entrusts the inherently nongovernmental subject of religion to a majoritarian vote, a constitutional violation has occurred.24 No further injury is required for the policy to fail a facial challenge.

    To properly examine this policy on its face, we “must be deemed aware of the history and context of the community and forum,” Pinette, 515 U.S., at 780 (O’Connor, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). Our examination of those circumstances above leads to the conclusion that this policy does not provide the District with the constitutional safe harbor it sought. The policy is invalid on its face because it establishes an improper majoritarian election on religion, and unquestionably has the purpose and creates the perception of encouraging the delivery of prayer at a series of important school events.”

In the side of the opposition, Justice Rehnquist wrote the opinion. He wrote, “

Finally, the Court seems to demand that a government policy be completely neutral as to content or be considered one that endorses religion. See ante, at 14. This is undoubtedly a new requirement, as our Establishment Clause jurisprudence simply does not mandate “content neutrality.” That concept is found in our First Amendment speech cases and is used as a guide for determining when we apply strict scrutiny. For example, we look to “content neutrality” in reviewing loudness restrictions imposed on speech in public forums, see Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989), and regulations against picketing, see Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312 (1988). The Court seems to think that the fact that the policy is not content neutral somehow controls the Establishment Clause inquiry. See ante, at 14.

    But even our speech jurisprudence would not require that all public school actions with respect to student speech be content neutral. See, e.g., Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986) (allowing the imposition of sanctions against a student speaker who, in nominating a fellow student for elective office during an assembly, referred to his candidate in terms of an elaborate sexually explicit metaphor). Schools do not violate the First Amendment every time they restrict student speech to certain categories. But under the Court’s view, a school policy under which the student body president is to solemnize the graduation ceremony by giving a favorable introduction to the guest speaker would be facially unconstitutional. Solemnization “invites and encourages” prayer and the policy’s content limitations prohibit the student body president from giving a solemn, yet non-religious, message like “commentary on United States foreign policy.””

My Opinion:

In this case, I disagree with the majority and agree with the minority. These student-initiated religious speeches should not be deemed unconstitutional because everyone has “religious freedom,” according to the First Amendment. As long as other students are not forced to participate in this student-led prayer, it should be okay and no violation of anyone’s rights has occurred. Schools should allow their students to express their religion whether it’s at a football game or any other event. Unless the other students who have different religions or don’t want to participate are forced to, this is a freedom of expression.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

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