Wallace v. Jaffree

Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985), was a United States Supreme Court case deciding on the issue of silent school prayer.[1]

Wallace v. Jaffree
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued December 4, 1984
Decided June 4, 1985
Full case nameWallace, Governor of Alabama, et al. v. Jaffree, et al.
Citations472 U.S. 38 (more)
105 S. Ct. 2479; 86 L. Ed. 2d 29; 1985 U.S. LEXIS 91; 53 U.S.L.W. 4665
Case history
PriorPreliminary injunction granted, Jaffree v. James, 544 F. Supp. 727 (S.D. Ala. 1982); statute upheld, Jaffree v. Board of School Comm'rs of Mobile County, 554 F. Supp. 1104 (S.D. Ala. 1983); reversed, Jaffree v. Wallace, 705 F.2d 1526 (11th Cir. 1983).
SubsequentSmith v. Board of School Comm'rs of Mobile County, 827 F.2d 684 (11th Cir. 1987); 837 F.2d 1461 (11th Cir. 1988)
State endorsement of prayer activities in schools is prohibited by the First Amendment.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
William J. Brennan Jr. · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall · Harry Blackmun
Lewis F. Powell Jr. · William Rehnquist
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Case opinions
MajorityStevens, joined by Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I


An Alabama law authorized teachers to set aside one minute at the start of each day for a moment for "meditation or voluntary prayer." [2]

Ishmael Jaffree, an American citizen, was a resident of Mobile County, Alabama and a parent of three students who attended school in the Mobile County Public School System; two of the three children were in the second grade and the third was in kindergarten. His youngest was being made fun of by peers because he refused to say the prayers. On May 28, 1982, Jaffree brought suit naming the Mobile County School Board, various school officials, and the minor plaintiffs' three teachers as defendants. Jaffree sought a declaratory judgment and an injunction restraining the defendants from "maintaining or allowing the maintenance of regular religious prayer services or other forms of religious observances in the Mobile County Public Schools in violation of the First Amendment as made applicable to states by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution."

Jaffree's complaint further alleged that two of his children had been subjected to various acts of religious indoctrination and that the defendant teachers had led their classes in saying certain prayers in unison on a daily basis; that as a result of not participating in the prayers his minor children had been exposed to ostracism from their peer group classmates; and that Jaffree had repeatedly but unsuccessfully requested that the prayers be stopped.

Despite initially granting a preliminary injunction,[3] the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama ultimately allowed the practice and found in favor of the defendants.[4] The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding the law unconstitutional.[5]



The Supreme Court ruled, 6-3, that the Alabama law violated constitutional principle. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Justices William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, and Lewis Powell. In his original opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens referred to "Mohammedism" when referencing the Islamic faith but changed this to Islam after receiving a letter from Omar Kader, then president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.[citation needed] Justice Powell wrote a separate concurring opinion, and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Associate Justices William H. Rehnquist (later Chief Justice) and Byron White issued dissenting opinions. Rehnquist asserted that the Court's Establishment Clause reasoning was flawed inasmuch as it was based on the writings of Thomas Jefferson, who was not the author of the Clause.

The opinionEdit

The Court first noted that "the proposition that the several States have no greater power to restrain the individual freedoms protected by the First Amendment than does the Congress of the United States" is "firmly embedded in our constitutional jurisprudence" and that "the First Amendment was adopted to curtail the power of Congress to interfere with the individual's freedom to believe, to worship, and to express himself in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience." The "Lemon Test," previously created by the Court to help determine whether legislation violates the Establishment Clause, included as a factor that "the statute must have a secular legislative purpose," and the Court further held in Jaffree that "the First Amendment requires that a statute must be invalidated if it is entirely motivated by a purpose to advance religion."

The record in the case showed not only that the Alabama law "was not motivated by any clearly secular purpose" but that "indeed, the statute had no secular purpose." With no secular purpose behind the law, and because it expanded a previous law that already allowed for meditation so that it now explicitly included "voluntary prayer" as well, the only possible conclusion was that the new law was passed "for the sole purpose of expressing the State's endorsement of prayer activities for one minute at the beginning of each schoolday." Since "[s]uch an endorsement is not consistent with the established principle that the government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion," the Court ruled in favor of Jaffree and upheld the Eleventh Circuit's decision.


Chief Justice BurgerEdit

In his dissent to the US Supreme Court case, Wallace v. Jaffree, Chief Justice Burger expresses several reasons for his opinion that the Court decided incorrectly. He begins by pointing out that the statute authorizing a moment of silence at the beginning of a school day, which mentions the word “prayer”, does not, thereby, unconstitutionally promote a religion. He maintains that the ruling against this statute actually is directly aggressive and intimidating to religion, which is as unconstitutional as a candid establishment of religion. Also in his first point, he contests the decision with the point that a school is constitutionally on the same level of government as state and federal legislatures and even the Supreme Court. Thus, the endorsement of a “moment of silence” with an oblique suggestion of prayer is no less constitutional as is the opening of a Congress or Court session with a prayer by a publicly funded chaplain.

In his next point, Burger emphasizes the tenuousness of the Court's peripheral reasoning, specifically including the statements of the statute's sponsor and the differences between the statute and its predecessor statute. Upon the subject of the statute's sponsor's comments, he raises many points that work to invalidate the use of the statements as evidence for the original intent of the legislature at the time of the statute's enactment. First, he mentions that the said statements were made by the sponsor after the legislature's vote on the bill and that the legislature did not, in all likelihood, know any portion of his views sufficient enough to claim his motives as those of the entire legislature. He also brings attention to the fact that the same legislator also stated that one of his purposes was to resolve a misunderstanding that silent, individual prayer is (unconstitutionally) prohibited.

Next, to discuss the differences between the debated statute and its predecessor, he brings up the Court's opinion that the inclusion of the phrase “or voluntary prayer” endorses and promotes religion. He says that the Court's reasoning behind this relies upon the removal of the phrase from its context. He compares this addition to the addition of the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and contests that the Court's logic would also condemn the Pledge of Allegiance as unconstitutional and therefore discernibly preposterous. When taken in context, he suggests, the phrase “or voluntary prayer” is perfectly constitutional as a measure to prevent the unconstitutional prohibition of individual prayer.

Burger, in his third point, calls out the Court's use of the “Lemon Test” as an indolent attempt to apply a “one size fits all” test to a less-than-standard case. He suggests that the use of the test ignores the Court's duty to examine the statute against the ideas of the Establishment Clause and that the decision of the case clearly shows this shortcoming.

In his conclusion, Justice Burger reiterates the fact that the statute was not an unconstitutional endorsement and promotion of religion that sought to establish a state church, but an entirely constitutional measure designed to prevent truly unconstitutional infringement upon the rights of students to pray individually as they please.

Justice RehnquistEdit

Justice Rehnquist's dissent to the US Supreme Court case, Wallace v. Jaffree, relies heavily upon pointing out the faults behind the common misunderstanding of Thomas Jefferson's statements about the “separation of church and state” in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. He begins by explaining that the Establishment Clause has been closely linked with Jefferson's letter since Everson v. Board of Education. He calls attention to the fact that Jefferson wrote the letter a full 14 years after the amendments to the US Constitution were ratified and that Jefferson, at the time, was residing in France. Thus, he says, Jefferson makes a less than ideal source of background of the Establishment Clause, no matter Jefferson's intended meaning.

Justice Rehnquist suggests, instead, that one turn to the actions of the Congress and James Madison's significant role in it for insight into the original intent of the Establishment Clause. He continues by referencing the debates of the colonies’ ratification conventions. He points out the fact that the states frequently opposed the ratification of the Constitution due to its lack of a Bill of Rights. Those who, upon that basis, opposed ratification thought that the government, without such an enumeration of rights, had a great potential to follow the authoritarian path they wished to avoid. To solve this impasse, Madison urged Congress to consider his draft of amendments. After some time of debate and revision, a version what is now the First Amendment was created: “No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.” This version was met with opposition by many representatives as it could be construed “to abolish religion altogether” or “to be taken in such latitude as to be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion”. It was on this basis that the final version of the amendment was selected and ratified. Thus, says Rehnquist, one can see indisputably that the spirit in which the Congress approved the Establishment Clause was one of open-minded toleration, not one of hostility towards religion.

He then brings up Thomas Jefferson's reasoning for not issuing a Thanksgiving Proclamation. Jefferson said that partaking in prayer and religious exercises are acts of individual discipline and that the right to those activities can never be safer than in the hands of the people. Through this, Rehnquist maintains that the meaning of the Establishment Clause as a preventative measure to keep the government from establishing a religion but not to prevent the individual freedom to follow one's own beliefs.

In his conclusion, Rehnquist denounces the Lemon Test as "having no more grounding in the First Amendment than the wall theory created from 'separation of church and state' " in Everson v. Board of Education. He says that because it has no basis in the amendment that it is designed to interpret, it cannot yield predictably constitutional results when applied to a statute.

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Kurland, Philip B. (1961), "Of Church and State and the Supreme Court", University of Chicago Law Review, 29 (1): 1–96, doi:10.2307/1598520, JSTOR 1598520.
  • Redlich, Norman (1985), "Separation of Church and State: The Burger Court's Tortuous Journey", Notre Dame Law Review, 60: 1094.
  • Schwarz, Alan (1968), "No Imposition of Religion: The Establishment Clause Value", Yale Law Journal, 77 (4): 692–737, doi:10.2307/795008, JSTOR 795008.
  • Smith, Rodney K. (1985), "Now is the Time for Reflection: Wallace v. Jaffree and Its Legislative Aftermath", Alabama Law Review, 37: 345.


  1. ^ Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985).   This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  2. ^ Code of Alabama § 16-1-20.1 (repealed).
  3. ^ Jaffree v. James, 544 F. Supp. 727, 732 (S.D. Ala. 1982).
  4. ^ Jaffree v. Board of School Comm'rs of Mobile County, 554 F. Supp. 1104, 1128 (S.D. Ala. 1983).
  5. ^ Jaffree v. Wallace, 705 F.2d 1526, 1535-1536 (11th Cir. 1983).

External linksEdit