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Wallace v. Jaffree

Wallace v. Jaffree enjoys the dubious distinction of being listed as one of the ten worst non-Supreme Court decisions in Bernard Schwartz's A Book of Legal Lists. The case involved a court challenge to the constitutionality of an Alabama statute authorizing a daily period of silence in Alabama's public schools for meditation or voluntary prayer.

The opinion from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama was written by Chief Judge W. Brevard Hand. It came to the surprising conclusion that the Establishment Clause of the FIRST AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution prohibited only the federal government from establishing a state religion and that the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT did not make the prohibition binding on the states. Thus, reasoned Judge Hand, the federal Constitution presented no bar to Alabama's establishment of a state religion. Judge Hand found that "the relevant LEGISLATIVE HISTORY surrounding the adoption of both the First Amendment and of the Fourteenth Amendment, together with the plain language of those amendments, leaves no doubt that those amendments were not intended to forbid religious prayers in the schools which the states and their political subdivisions mandate." Jaffree, 554 F. Supp. at 1128.] In Jaffree, the district court thus openly rejected decades of settled Supreme Court precedents reaching the opposite conclusion.

Judge Hand's opinion was delivered on January 14, 1983. His remarkable conclusions were quickly appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, and the disappointed plaintiff, Jaffree, also made a simultaneous application for a stay to the U.S. Supreme Court. On February 11, 1983, Justice Powell granted Jaffree's application for a stay of Judge Hand's opinion. Justice LEWIS F. POWELL stated that the district court was bound by the Supreme Court's previous decisions, which held that the Establishment Clause, as made applicable to the states by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, does indeed prohibit a state from authorizing prayer in the public schools.

The appeal was argued before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed Judge Hand's opinion on May 12, 1983 (Jaffree v. Wallace, 705 F.2d 1526, 1536 [11th Cir. 1983]). The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that both Alabama Code sections in question, § 16-1-20.1 and § 16-1-20.2, were unconstitutional (Jaffree, 705 F.2d at 1535-36). The Eleventh Circuit also agreed with Justice Powell that the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause cases were clear and controlling on the facts as presented to Judge Hand.

In its opinion, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit acknowledged the extensive scholarly debate over the interplay between the First and Fourteenth Amendments; however, the court made it clear that the U.S. Supreme Court had already considered and decided the historical implications surrounding the Establishment Clause and concluded that its present interpretation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments is consistent with the historical evidence. In explicit language, the Court of Appeals reiterated that the Supreme Court is the ultimate authority on the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and laws; its interpretations may not be disregarded (Jaffree, 705 F.2d at 1532).

The state subsequently appealed the ruling of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Eventually, Wallace v. Jaffree reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court refused to question the application of the Establishment Clause to the states. Jaffree presented the Supreme Court with an opportunity to reexamine the incorporation of the Establishment Clause, if the Court had seen any reason to do so. But not a single justice on the Supreme Court expressed any desire to reconsider the Supreme Court decisions which had consistently applied the Establishment Clause to the states. The justices refused to comment at length on the district court's remarkable conclusion that the federal Constitution imposes no obstacle to Alabama's establishment of a state religion. But the Court did find it appropriate to restate how firmly embedded in constitutional JURISPRUDENCE is the proposition that the states are restrained from curtailing individual freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

Justice SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR wrote a concurring opinion, stating that the First and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees preclude the federal and state governments from making any law establishing a government-sponsored religion.

Three members of the Supreme Court dissented in Jaffree: Chief Justice WARREN BURGER, Justice BYRON R. WHITE, and Justice WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST. Chief Justice Burger and Justice White did not challenge the Court's previous decisions applying the Establishment Clause to the states, but Justice Rehnquist focused his dissent on what he believed is the proper reading of the Establishment Clause. Instead of the metaphorical "wall of separation" between church and state, he concluded that the Founders intended for the Establishment Clause to prevent the federal government from establishing a national church or preferring one religious denomination over another. His dissent did not suggest that he had any intention of reexamining the application of the First Amendment to the states. Rather, he accepted without comment the incorporation of the First Amendment and focused his comments on the proper scope of application for the Establishment Clause.


Fraser, James W. 1999. Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America. New York: St. Martin's.

Schwartz, Bernard. 1997. A Book of Legal Lists: The Best and Worst in American Law. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Urofsky, Melvin I. 2002. Religious Freedom: Rights and Liberties under the Law. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO.



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