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Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000)

Facts:
In Santa Fe, Texas, students were elected by their classmates to give pre-game prayers at high school football games over the public address system. A number of students sued, arguing that such solemnizing statements or prayers constituted an endorsement of religion, violating the Establishment Clause. The district countered that the pre-game invocations were a long-standing tradition in Texas communities. Moreover, the prayer came from a student, thus making it student speech and not state-sponsored speech.

Issue:
Whether a student-led prayer over the public address system before high school football games violates the Establishment Clause.

Holding:
In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that the pre-game prayer given by a student at high school football games communicates a government religious endorsement, and as such, violates the Establishment Clause.

Reasoning:
The Court was not persuaded by the district’s arguments, finding that the student speech was not private. The control the school maintained over the content of the student speech registered government preference for religious speech or prayer. In view of the history of religious practices in the school district, the district’s student election policy appeared to be designed to maintain the practice of pre-game prayers. The Court also found that the voting mechanism used by the school to determine whether a message would be given and who would give it only exacerbated the Establishment Clauses issues since the different religious groups within the school now became rival political factions. Voting for the speaker ensured not only sectarian conflict, but that only the majoritarian religious voice would ever be heard. These factors led the Court to find that the district policy on pre-game messages resulted in both perceived and real endorsement of religion by the government, and therefore was unconstitutional.

Majority:
"The delivery of such a message -- over the school's public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer -- is not properly characterized as 'private' speech." (Justice John Paul Stevens)

Dissent:
"The Court distorts existing precedent to conclude that the school district’s student-message program is invalid on its face under the Establishment Clause. But even more disturbing than its holding is the tone of the Court's opinion; it bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life. Neither the holding nor the tone of the opinion is faithful to the meaning of the Establishment Clause, when it is recalled that George Washington himself, at the request of the very Congress which passed the Bill of Rights, proclaimed a day or 'public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.'" (Chief Justice William Rehnquist)

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Last updated: Saturday, April 19, 2014 | 15:54:23