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Wallace v. Jaffree

Significance

The Court remained firm in its opposition to statutes like Alabama's, which was clearly intended to reintroduce prayer into the schools. However, the Court did leave an opening for some other state to introduce a truly undefined, uncommitted "moment of silence" into its school system.

Ishmael Jaffree was a resident of Mobile County, Alabama. On 28 May 1982, he filed suit in federal district court on behalf of his three school-age children. They were, he claimed, being subjected to regular prayer services and other forms of religious indoctrination as a part of the regular school day. Jaffree named as defendants the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, and various other state officials. At a preliminary hearing in the case, state Senator Donald G. Holmes testified about the statute that permitted religious or quasi-religious activity in the Alabama public schools. He said that as the prime sponsor of the bill, his intention was to use the proposed legislation to return voluntary prayer to the public schools. When it was first passed in 1978, the statute had called for a minute of silence for "meditation." In 1981, the statute was amended so that the moment of silence could be spent in "meditation or voluntary prayer." Then in 1982, the law was changed again to permit teachers to lead "willing students" in a prayer to "Almighty God."

In the end, the district court concluded that there was no impediment to Alabama's establishment of a state religion. Jaffree then appealed this judgment to the federal appellate court, which overturned the district court's decision. Since the law in question clearly was meant to advance religion, it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . " Subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions had made the Establishment Clause applicable to the states, as well as the federal government. After this decision, the Supreme Court granted Governor Wallace's petition for review, but agreed only to address the constitutionality of the 1981 amendment to the Alabama "minute of silence" law.

There was some reason to believe that at this moment in history, the Court might be open to some quasi-religious observation in the public schools. Popular response to the Court's decisions upholding a wall between church and state in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) had been negative, and ever since 1971, polls had consistently shown that more than 75 percent of respondents favored school prayer. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, he made no secret of his ambition to reintroduce prayer in the public schools. And the Court itself had shown some signs that it might be relenting. Recently it had ruled, in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), that a city-sponsored Christmas display including a nativity creche did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Wallace v. Jaffree - Significance, Court Strikes Down "minute Of Silence" Law As Impermissible State Sponsorship Of Religion