Sante Fe Research Paper

Prayer in House of Reps. (LOC)

Prayer in House of Reps. (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Political Science 102 – The Constitution and Rights of Americans (Fall 2009)

Sante Fe Research Paper

[Students and professors, please read.]


I.  Introduction

Sante Fe Independent School District (of Galveston, TX) versus Doe (2000), branding as unconstitutional state-endorsed student prayer, although not a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, is a sign of the times that we are in, a tug-of-war between religion and secularization in the public sphere.  It is a sign of a seemingly global push to secularization to some, to others a sign of increased sensitivity to the religious liberties of others.  Even though it is the U.S. Supreme Court’s purpose to make sure all laws conform to the U.S. Constitution, you may think the court in this case unconstitutionally ruled in favor of restricting religious freedom—or you may think the court constitutionally protected the religious freedom of everyone, not just members of the dominant religion.  It must be noted that this struggle was not started by secular people, but by our religious forefathers.  Thomas Jefferson, quoting “Baptist theologian Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, in his 1644 book ‘The Bloody Tenent of Persecution,’” (1) is responsible for the phrase quoted more than once by the court, “wall of separation between church and state,” (2) his motivation best explained in the words of James Madison, drafter of the First Amendment  “We are teaching the world the great truth that Govts. do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Govt,” (3).  But it goes even further back than that.  God, through Samuel the prophet, warns against being ruled by a human king (1 Samuel 8) (relevantly, God prefers the government of ‘judges’ and prophets), and through Jeremiah the prophet, spoke of the future alternative of the law being written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31), which the secular would call “self-governed” (but which is really “God-governed”—at the request of the self).  We do not need government to legitimize our faith—especially not at the cost of others’ freedom.  Although it could be argued that if there is no God, no ‘real’ good, then there is no ‘true’ obligation to protect freedom, and no ‘true’ freedom we are obliged to protect (thankfully our forefathers were Christians and not moral nihilists!)—that does not justify the establishment of religion by government (though ‘honest’ moral nihilists might argue that acknowledging such rights is a form of establishment).  Although there are no ‘true’ rights and liberties apart from God, one of them is the right to deal with religion as individuals, without government interference.  In the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, there are two relevant clauses which we and the court may use to decide cases pertaining to religious freedom and its infringement.  Freedom of religious expression is protected by the Free Expression Clause.  This is the same clause protecting freedom of speech, including that of the press.  But, we must remember that our rights and liberties must not infringe upon the rights and liberties of others—such infringement, as pertains to religious freedom, is referred to as “establishment of religion,” which is unconstitutional when endorsed by the government, according to the Establishment Clause.  These two clauses aim to protect every individual’s freedom of religion from being encroached upon by government.  Sometimes the clauses come into conflict and such conflicts sometimes make their way to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide.  Sante Fe Independent School District versus Doe is one such conflict.  This paper will review the background of how the case got to the U.S. Supreme Court, and examine how the court applied the Lemon, Endorsement, and Coercion tests in determining that establishment had occurred.  I wanted to discuss future implications, but am limited to 2000 words.

II.  Background of the Case

It has been very fascinating researching the events which led up to this case, because different sources focus on different aspects, and paint them in different lights, but here is what I have been able to glean.  What you will not observe is any specific prayer, because the policy was attacked before it was implemented.  In April of ‘95, one Roman Catholic and one Mormon family (“the Does”), anonymous to avoid reprisals, filed a lawsuit with the District Court against Sante Fe Independent School District (SFISD), in which their children were students.  The Does “also sued several employees, administrators, board members, and trustees of SFISD in their individual capacities,” (5).  “In June 1993, SFISD drafted—for the first time—a written policy prohibiting school officials from ‘direct[ing] the performance of a formal religious exercise at [graduation] ceremonies,’” (5).  Before that, there was no written policy, but “SFISD permitted student council officers to maintain an elective office of “student council ‘chaplain,’” and allowed students to deliver prayers at home football games, graduation ceremonies, and other school events,” (5).  The June 1993 policy was adapted in October 1994 after an overtly Christian June 1994 graduation ceremony invocation, benediction and address.  The new policy permitted elected students “to deliver nonsectarian, non-proselytizing invocations and benedictions for the purpose of solemnizing their graduation ceremonies,” (5).  This was the policy challenged by the Does in the District Court.  Notice it deals with graduation ceremonies, not football games.  In response to an injunction granted by the District Court, SFISD amended their policy in May 1995, to permit, but not require, “non-sectarian, non-proselytizing” prayer before football games (5).  They amended it again in July and August [called “Prayer Before Football Games” (7)] to require the message delivered at graduation ceremonies be nonsectarian and non-proselytizing in nature “only upon the issuance of such a court order,” (5) removing the October 1994 requirement.  Then, in October 1995 SFISD instituted a policy specifically permitting prayer [without using the word ‘prayer’ (7)] before football games, if the student body voted in the affirmative to elect a student chaplain to deliver the prayer (this involves two separate majoritarian votes).  “Relying on our decision in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577 (1992), [the District Court] held [in 1996, according to Wikipedia] that the school’s ‘action must not “coerce anyone to support or participate in” a religious exercise.’ Applying that test, it concluded that the graduation prayers appealed ‘to distinctively Christian beliefs,’ and that delivering a prayer ‘over the school’s public address system prior to each football and baseball game coerces student participation in religious events.’ Both parties appealed, the District contending that the enjoined portion of the October policy was permissible and the Does contending that both alternatives violated the Establishment Clause. The Court of Appeals majority agreed with the Does,” (7) Feb. 26, 1999 (8), striking the District’s policy down by a 2 to 1 vote (4), because 1) the policy permitted sectarian, proselytizing prayer, and 2) even with the enjoined portion of the policy, graduations may be solemnized, but the same cannot be said of football games (5) which are, according to the court, “hardly the type of annual event that can be appropriately solemnized with prayer,” (4). According to Religious, the ruling may have fueled an event of religious hatred, and a restraining order against such ‘messages’ was issued in September ‘99 [Ward v. Sante Fe Independent School District, Civil Action Number G-99-556, Slip. Op. at 2 (S. D. Tex. Sept. 3, 1999)], prompting then-Governor of Texas, George Bush, joined by the support of seven states, to instruct the Texas Attorney General to file an appeal, while many Texas school boards ignored the ban.  He, Bush, and the State of Texas “filed an amici curiae brief before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1999-MAR. They asked that the entire court re-hear the case that was originally studied only by a panel of three judges. They lost,” (4).  Note:  an amici curiae brief, amici curiae meaning “friend of the court,” is simply a way for a person not involved in a case to put in their two cents.  In October and November of ‘99, 13 Texas Congressmen communicated with the U.S. Supreme Court and introduced a non-binding resolution passed by Congress “which encouraged Christian prayer before public school athletic games,” (4).  November 15 of ‘99 (4), the U.S. Supreme Court “granted the school district’s petition for certiorari to review that holding,” (7) of the Fifth Circuit.  “On JAN-5, Cornyn, Bush, the States of Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas announced that they had issued an amici curiae brief in the appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court,” (4). “In early March, 94% of Texas voters approved a non-binding resolution backing student-initiated prayer at public school sporting events,” (4).  The court heard arguments answering the question, “Does the Santa Fe Independent School District’s policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?” on March 27, 2000 from counsel designated by “The American Center for Law and Justice, a religious organization created by Pat Robertson,” (4).  The court decided 6-3 (6) that the answer to the question was “yes.”  The opinion was delivered on June 19, 2000 (4) by Justice John Paul Stevens (6).  We move on to discuss that opinion, as well as the dissenting opinion delivered by Chief Justice Rehnquist, joined by Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas (7)—in a nutshell.

III. The Three Tests and Their Application to The Case

There are three tests used by the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether a policy or statute violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause:  the Lemon Test, the Endorsement Test, and the Coercion Test.  The Coercion Test was just referred to above, but we will discuss all three tests and their application to this case in somewhat more detail here.  The Lemon Test originated in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971).  In order for a statute to be considered constitutional, as in not in violation of the Establishment Clause, “(1) it must have a secular legislative purpose, (2) its principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and (3) it must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion,” (9).  The court ruled that the SFISD’s policy’s claimed ‘secular’ purpose was a sham (Stevens’ word), that it in fact advances religion on its face, before a single message could be delivered, and so such a message is not necessary to determine whether or not the policy establishes religion, despite objections.  The Endorsement Test originated in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984).  A government action is unconstitutional if it either endorses or is disapproving of religion.  The main issue in this case was whether the student-led, student-initiated prayer was “private” or “government” speech.  The court ruled that, after taking into account all the circumstances leading up to the case, and the school’s name and colors being visible at the school event, the policy of prayer was endorsed by the government.  The Coercion Test originated in Lee v. Weisman and is used to “examine to what extent, if any, pressure is applied to force or coerce individuals to participate.  The Court has defined that ‘Unconstitutional coercion occurs when: (1) the government directs (2) a formal religious exercise (3) in such a way as to oblige the participation of objectors,’” (10).  To quote the court:   “Undoubtedly, the games are not important to some students, and they voluntarily choose not to attend. For many others, however, the choice between whether to attend these games or to risk facing a personally offensive religious ritual is in no practical sense an easy one. The Constitution, moreover, demands that the school may not force this difficult choice upon these students for ‘[i]t is a tenet of the First Amendment that the State cannot require one of its citizens to forfeit his or her rights and benefits as the price of resisting conformance to state-sponsored religious practice.’ Id., at 596,” (7).  They are forced to face a “personally offensive religious ritual” if they want to join their friends at the football game, which the court deemed coercive.


It seems that if a school makes a policy providing for pre-game messages with the purpose of stealthily leaving the situation wide-open for prayer to occur, it will be construed as unconstitutional.  However, if a student spontaneously delivers a message apart from any school policy—such a message is protected by the Constitution.  However, let us not be like the hypocrites in Matthew 6:5 who alienated everyone around them with their prayer, violating the Golden Rule.  On the other hand, it was interesting to me that, rather than argue that the government has no business endorsing the solemnization (which the court argued was done best with prayer) of ‘any’ event—the court argued that a football game did not need to be solemnized (to prevent the certain uproarious panic of those holding tightly to the allowance of prayer at graduations and before certain government meetings, mockingly alluded to by the dissent).  I agree with the dissent that it is up to the ‘people’—not the government—what events ought be solemnized, and how.  The ruling did seem to be tinged against religion.  I’ve gone over the maximum word-count, sorry.


1. Wikipedia, “Separation of church and state in the United States,” (accessed November 18, 2009).

2. U.S. Constitution Online, “Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter,” (accessed November 18, 2009).

3. Reach and Teach, “Is Separation of Church and State ‘Constitutional,’” (accessed November 18, 2009).

4. B.A. Robinson, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, “Prayers at public school sports events,” (accessed November 18, 2009).

5. Jeremy Speich, “Sante Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe:  Mapping the Future of Student-Led, Student-Initiated Prayer in Public Schools” (October 2001), (accessed November 18, 2009).

6. Sante Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000), (accessed November 18, 2009).

7. Sante Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, (accessed November 18, 2009).

8. Jane Doe v. Sante Fe (accessed November 18, 2009).

9. Kermit L. Hall, “Lemon Test,” The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, Oxford University Press (2005),, (accessed November 18, 2009).

10., “Church and State: How the Court Decides” (accessed November 18, 2009).

Bibliography “Church and State: How the Court Decides” (accessed November 18, 2009).

Hall, Kermit L.. “Lemon Test,” The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, Oxford University Press (2005),, (accessed November 18, 2009).

Jane Doe v. Sante Fe. (accessed November 18, 2009).

Reach and Teach. “Is Separation of Church and State ‘Constitutional,’” (accessed November 18, 2009).

Robinson, B.A.. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, “Prayers at public school sports events,” (accessed November 18, 2009).

Sante Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe. (accessed November 18, 2009).

Sante Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000). (accessed November 18, 2009).

Speich, Jeremy.  “Sante Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe:  Mapping the Future of Student-Led, Student-Initiated Prayer in Public Schools” (October 2001), (accessed November 18, 2009).

U.S. Constitution Online. “Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter,” (accessed November 18, 2009).

Wikipedia. “Separation of church and state in the United States,” (accessed November 18, 2009).

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