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Wallace v. Jaffree

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Significance: Applying an expansive interpretation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court struck down a state law that authorized schools to devote a minute of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer.”


The majority of the public, especially in the South, disagreed with Engel v. Vitale (1962), which had banned formal prayers from the public schools. In 1978 the Alabama legislature authorized the schools to devote one minute of silence “for meditation.” In 1981 the legislature amended the law to authorize the period “for meditation or voluntary prayer.” In 1982 the legislature authorized teachers to lead “willing students” in oral prayers. In response to the laws, Ishmael Jaffree, an outspoken humanist and father of six children, complained that public officials were subjecting his children to indoctrination and pressures to participate in religious conduct. As expected, the federal courts quickly ruled that the 1982 law was unconstitutional. In Wallace v. Jaffree, the Supreme Court justices voted six to three that the 1981 law also violated the establishment clause. Justice John Paul Stevens's opinion for the majority analyzed the law according to the first criterion of the Lemon test (developed in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971), which meant that the law must be invalidated if it was motivated entirely by the purpose of advancing religion. From the record, Stevens found that the legislature's only motivation was to “endorse prayer as a favored practice.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor emphasized that neutral moments of silence were constitutional. In a strong dissent, Justice William H. Rehnquist argued that the intent of the First Amendment was merely to prohibit establishment of a national church or laws preferring one sect over another. Similarly, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote that it was almost “ridiculous” to suggest that silent prayers could lead to an established religion, and he referred to Marsh v. Chambers (1983), in which the Court had allowed formal prayer rituals in legislative sessions.