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Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe
by Attorney Dana D. Eilers

An Analysis of 'Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe'


As a pagan attorney, I have worked up an analysis of the following case, paying particular attention to that which will be of interest to Pagans. This is an important decision and one that will impact future cases regarding religious activities in the public school system and the issue of the separation of church and state. If this analysis is utilized anywhere, please give credit where credit is due. Many thanks!

The Analysis:

Santa Fe Independent School Dst. v. Doe, United States Supreme Court, No. 99-62 (Decided June 19, 2000)

NOTE: When this case is published in the United States Supreme Court reports, it will be at 530 U.S. ____ (2000). All citations herein are to the Advance Sheets.

FACTS: The Santa Fe School District is a political subdivision of the state of Texas and as such, educateds more than 4, 000 students. Santa Fe, at page 2. The school board enacted a policy which permitted students to deliver a brief invocation and/or message during pre-game ceremonies of home varsity football games Santa Fe, at pages 5-6.

According to the policy, this was accomplished upon the "advice and direction" of the High School Principal as follows: each spring, the High School Student Council "shall conduct" an election via the student body to choose a student to deliver the address. Santa Fe, at footnote number 6, page 6. The student elected decided what to say "consistent with the goals and purposes of this policy." Santa Fe, at footnote number 6, page 6.

A Mormon student and family, together with a Catholic student and family, initiated this litigation under a Temporary Restraining Order regarding imminent graduation exercises and alleged that the school district "engaged in proseltyzing practices, such as promoting attendance at Baptist revival meetings, encouraging membership in religious clubs, chastising children who hold minority religious beliefs, and distributing Gideon Bibles on school premises. They also alleged that the District allowed students to read Christian invocations and benedictions from the stage at graduation ceremonies and to deliver overtly Christian prayers over the public address system at home football games." Santa Fe, at page 3.

This set of circumstances put in motion a series of legal actions detailed in the Court's decision but ultimately, the issue before the United States Supreme Court was very narrow: whether student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Santa Fe, at page 9. The United States Supreme Court held that it did. Santa Fe, at page 9.


The Court began by quoting the First Amendment of the federal constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment thereof, thus laying the foundation of their decision: that neither federal governments nor state governments may establish religion or prohibit the free exercise thereof. Santa Fe, at page 9. Citing other case law, the Supreme Court stated: " . . . at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which 'establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so." Santa Fe, at page 10, citing Lee v. Weisman, 508 U.S. 577, 587 (1992). And Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 688, 678 (1984).

The court found that the pregame benedictions and prayers were "authorized by a government policy and take place on government propety at government-sponsored school-related events." Santa Fe, at page 10. Under the policy, the school board had created a limited public forum under the student election system where only those messages "deemed 'appropriate'" under the policy would be delivered and where by majoritarian process, "minority candidates will never prevail" and their "views will be effectively silenced." Santa Fe, at page 12.. Minority religious viewpoints were simply not protected under the policy, according the Court. Santa Fe, at page 13.

Additionally, the Court went beyond claims by the District that the prayers and benedictions were neutral and specifically stated: " . . . the pregame prayers bear 'the imprint of the State and thus put school-age children who objected in an untenable position.'" Santa Fe, at page, 13, citing Lee, at page 590. By analyzing the policy, it was determined that the elections were held under the auspices of the principal and that the messages had to be consistent with school pollicy; the policy "invited and encouraged" religious messages. Santa Fe, at page 14.

The Supreme Court stated: "Thus, the expressed purposes of the policy encourage the selection a religious message, and that is precisely how the students understand the policy . . . such religious activity in public schools, as elsewhere, must comport with the First Amendment." Santa Fe, at page 15.

The circumstances under which the prayers and benedictions are delivered are clothed in all the traditional indicia of the school sporting event and thus, according to the Court, "the listening audience must perceive the pregame message as a public expression of the views of the majority of the student body delivered with the approval of the school administration." Santa Fe, at page 16.

Again citing Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. at 688, the Supreme Court stated: "School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents 'that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.'" Santa Fe, at page 18.

Although the school district tried to assert that the pre-game prayers and benedictions were similar to the graduation prayer in the the Lee, case, the Supreme Court distinguished the two situations. Santa Fe, at pages 18-21.

However, the Court was careful to assert that not all religious activity in public schools was prohibited. Santa Fe, at page 21.

Finally, the Court struck down the school board's argument that the challenge to the policy was premature, saying that until the message was delivered, there was no cause of action. In dismissing this argument, the Court asserted: " . . . the simple enactment of this policy, with the purpose and perception of school endorsement of student prayer, was a constitutional violation. We need not wait for the inevitable to confirm and magnify the inevitable constitutional injury." Santa Fe, at page 24.

Dana D. Eilers

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