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By the 1990s, Santa FE ISD, a school district outside of Houston, had a long history of opening football games with public prayers. The Does (pseudonyms for one Catholic and one Mormon family) filed suit in U.S. District Court to challenge the school’s policy. These families claimed that such prayers violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which says that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Santa Fe ISD’s policy originally was to select, by popular vote, a student body chaplain who would lead prayers before each home football game. When faced with the possibility of a lawsuit, school administrators changed this policy. They adopted a two-round voting process in which students would first vote on whether they wanted a prayer at school functions. If so, a second vote would determine who would serve as student body chaplain. Since the prayers were given at a school-sponsored event and broadcast over the school’s speakers, the Does argued that they were, in essence, government-sponsored speech.

In 1996, the matter appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Samuel B. Kent. In framing his decision, Kent drew from several recent cases involving prayer in school. The first, Lee v. Weisman (1992), held that a rabbi praying at a Rhode Island graduation had violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Yet, in a second case, Jones v. Clear Creek ISD (1992), the Supreme Court had upheld the use of non-sectarian prayers at school functions. Not surprisingly, in July 1996, Justice Kent handed down a decision that upheld the two-stage voting process used by Santa Fe ISD officials to determine their school’s policy towards prayer. Attorneys for the Does appealed the matter to the U.S. Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel held that prayers delivered at solemn, annual affairs like graduation were permissible. However, prayers at recurring events such as football games violated the Establishment Clause. - Katelynn Allen


Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case


Did the Santa Fe ISD pre-game prayer policy amount to a government endorsement of religion and therefore violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Citation and Decision

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


On June 19, 2000, speaking for a 5-4 majority, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens declared that prayers delivered “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" represented an endorsement of religion and were therefore unconstitutional.


Discussion Questions


1. Which previous Supreme Court decision served as a precedent to Santa Fe ISD v. Doe?


2. Who were the “Does” in the case and what was their argument?

3. What does the Santa Fe ISD v. Doe case mean for the future of school prayers?


4. How did the Supreme Court decide whether school prayers at football games represented a governmental endorsement of religion?

5. In what ways does the Santa Fe ISD v. Doe case show tensions between the Establishment Clause and Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment?


6. What was the outcome of the case? Do you agree with it?


Oyez: Santa Fe ISD v. Doe

Texas Monthly: They Haven’t Got a Prayer

First Amendment Encyclopedia: Santa Fe ISD v Doe


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