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

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No. 99-62. Argued March 29, 2000-Decided June 19,2000

Prior to 1995, a student elected as Santa Fe High School's student council chaplain delivered a prayer over the public address system before each home varsity football game. Respondents, Mormon and Catholic students or alumni and their mothers, filed a suit challenging this practice and others under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. While the suit was pending, petitioner school district (District) adopted a different policy, which authorizes two student elections, the first to determine whether "invocations" should be delivered at games, and the second to select the spokesperson to deliver them. After the students held elections authorizing such prayers and selecting a spokesperson, the District Court entered an order modifying the policy to permit only nonsectarian, nonproselytizing prayer. The Fifth Circuit held that, even as modified by the District Court, the football prayer policy was invalid.

Held: The District's policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violates the Establishment Clause. Pp.301-317.

(a) The Court's analysis is guided by the principles endorsed in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577. There, in concluding that a prayer delivered by a rabbi at a graduation ceremony violated the Establishment Clause, the Court held that, 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 that establishes a state religion or religious faith, or tends to do so, id., at 587. The District argues unpersuasively that these principles are inapplicable because the policy's messages are private student speech, not public speech. The delivery of a message such as the invocation here-on school property, at school-sponsored events, 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. Although the District relies heavily on this Court's cases addressing public forums, e. g., Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819, it is clear that the District's


pregame ceremony is not the type of forum discussed in such cases. The District simply does not evince an intent to open its ceremony to indiscriminate use by the student body generally, see, e. g., Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U. S. 260, 270, but, rather, allows only one student, the same student for the entire season, to give the invocation, which is subject to particular regulations that confine the content and topic of the student's message. The majoritarian process implemented by the District guarantees, by definition, that minority candidates will never prevail and that their views will be effectively silenced. See Board of Regents of Univ. of Wis. System v. Southworth, 529 U. S. 217, 235. Moreover, the District has failed to divorce itself from the invocations' religious content. The policy involves both perceived and actual endorsement of religion, see Lee, 505 U. S., at 590, declaring that the student elections take place because the District "has chosen to permit" student-delivered invocations, that the invocation "shall" be conducted "by the high school student council" "[u]pon advice and direction of the high school principal," and that it must be consistent with the policy's goals, which include "solemniz[ing] the event." A religious message is the most obvious method of solemnizing an event. Indeed, the only type of message expressly endorsed in the policy is an "invocation," a term which primarily describes an appeal for divine assistance and, as used in the past at Santa Fe High School, has always entailed a focused religious message. A conclusion that the message is not "private speech" is also established by factors beyond the policy's text, including the official setting in which the invocation is delivered, see, e. g., Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U. S. 38, 73, 76, by the policy's sham secular purposes, see id., at 75, and by its history, which indicates that the District intended to preserve its long-sanctioned practice of prayer before football games, see Lee, 505 U. S., at 596. Pp. 301-310.

(b) The Court rejects the District's argument that its policy is distinguishable from the graduation prayer in Lee because it does not coerce students to participate in religious observances. The first part of this argument-that there is no impermissible government coercion because the pregame messages are the product of student choices-fails for the reasons discussed above explaining why the mechanism of the dual elections and student speaker do not turn public speech into private speech. The issue resolved in the first election was whether a student would deliver prayer at varsity football games, and the controversy in this case demonstrates that the students' views are not unanimous on that issue. One of the Establishment Clause's purposes is to remove debate over this kind of issue from governmental supervision or control. See Lee, 505 U. S., at 589. Although the ultimate choice of student speaker is attributable to the students, the District's de-

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

The Establishment Clause prohibits student-initiated and student-led prayer at public schools.


Before home football games, students in the Santa Fe Independent School District could use the public address system to offer Christian prayers. This official policy was challenged by two mothers of students in the school district, one Mormon and one Catholic. While the plaintiffs remained anonymous in the proceedings, one of the children appears to have been an atheist who sought to have public prayer categorically disallowed. In a response to the pending legal claim, the school decided to hold student elections on the issues of whether they would have prayers during football games and who should deliver them. Since the students voted to continue having prayers, the school district argued that they should have this right.

The federal district court agreed on the condition that the prayers did not promote any particular religion. Neither party was satisfied with this decision, since the school district wanted no restrictions on the prayers, and the families wanted them categorically struck down.

Procedural History

US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit - 168 F.3d 806

Affirmed. The non-sectarian and non-proselytizing components of the prayer are necessary under the Establishment Clause, but a student-led prayer is constitutional. However, it may be used only at graduation and not at football games.



  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

Relying on the Court precedent of Lee v. Weisman, Stevens ruled that these invocations constituted public speech because they used the school's equipment to deliver a prayer at a school event on school property in accordance with an express school policy. He felt that students and others in attendance would come to the inevitable conclusion that the school supported the prayers.


  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Clarence Thomas

The dissenters argued that the majority had adopted an overly harsh anti-religious viewpoint and that the speech was private speech because it was within the control of the student delivering it. Rehnquist also observed that the Court should not rule on a policy that had not gone into effect, in accordance with the ripeness doctrine.

Case Commentary

Schools must balance the interests of the students in expressing their religious beliefs while taking care not to endorse religion in general. This can be more complex than the Court suggested in a relatively concise and straightforward majority opinion.

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