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Background of the Santa Fe School District (Galveston, TX), case:

bullet 1999-MAR-1: Texas ruling: A lawsuit was filed by a Mormon and Roman Catholic family whose identities have not been release to protect them from reprisals. Galveston's Santa Fe Independent School District had permitted "student-selected, student-given, non-sectarian, non-proselytizing" prayers to be read over the PA system at football games. School district policy said the purpose of such prayers was "to solemnize the event, to promote good sportsmanship and student safety, and to establish the appropriate environment for the competition."  [Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District, 168 F.3d 806 (5th Cir. 1999)] The administration had held a student vote which indicated that the majority of students wanted formal prayer before football games. The school administration then held a second vote so that students could select representatives to read the prayers. 

A three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th circuit ruled on 1999-MAR-1 that student-led formal public prayers are not permitted to be included in the agenda at school sports events, if the school administration was involved. By a 2:1 vote, the court declared the policy to be unconstitutional, saying that football games are "hardly the type of annual event that can be appropriately solemnized with prayer." Kelly Shackleford, spokesperson for Liberty Legal Institute (a conservative Christian legal organization), said, "The government has no right to monitor the content of children's prayers." 1  

The court's ruling was consistent with an earlier ruling by the 11 circuit Court of Appeals. 


1999-MAY: Religious hatred event: An incident occurred in the Santa Fe school district that might have been related to the prayer dispute. Three high school students were arrested for threatening to hang a 13 year old Jewish student in the Santa Fe middle school's eighth grade class.


1999-SEP: Court restraining order: A temporary restraining order was issued which prevented the school from allowing a student organized, student-led message to be included in public school game programs. This could include a "courteous, reverent, solemnizing ‘prayer, blessing, invocation, or reference to a deity' as her choice of message to solemnize the football games this season."  [Ward v. Sante Fe Independent School District, Civil Action Number G-99-556, Slip. Op. at 2 (S. D. Tex. Sept. 3, 1999)] George Bush, governor of Texas and presidential candidate in the 2000 elections, instructed the Texas Attorney General to file an appeal. Louisiana, Mississippi, and five other states have joined in support. In violation of the court ban, some school boards in Texas continued to encourage student-led prayers at football games. Such prayers are a long-standing tradition in Texas; so is independence from government authority. 

bullet 1999-OCT-20: Resolution in Congress: 13 Texan congressmen urged the U.S. Supreme Court to allow schools to include a formal student-organized, student-led prayer at high school games. They introduced a resolution in the House to negate the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision. The resolution states, in part: "Prayers at public school sporting events are entirely consistent with our American heritage of seeking divine guidance and protection in all of our undertakings.

On 1999-NOV-2, Congress passed a non-binding resolution which encouraged Christian prayer before public school athletic games. A resolution has no legal status in law; it is merely an expression of the beliefs of House members. The resolution declares that "prayers and invocations at public school sporting events are constitutional under the First Amendment to the Constitution..." This is an unusual statement for Congress to make:
bullet It appears to transfer to the Congress the responsibility of interpreting the U.S. Constitution: a function reserved for the courts. 
bullet Since the resolution attempts to over-ride a Supreme Court decision, it also appears to be a violation of the representatives' oath of office. Before they entered the House, they were required to promise to uphold the Constitution. 

The resolution also recommended That "the Supreme Court...should uphold the constitutionality of such practices." Some comments were:
bullet Rep.  Walter Jones, (R-NC) said that: "America was built on Judeo-Christian values."
bullet Robert Aderholt (R-AL) found it "most ironic that while an increasing number of violent crimes have occurred in our nation's schools in recent years, our federal courts have seen fit to restrict the very expression of faith which can play a significant role in providing desperately needed moral guidance to our youth...A strong religious message coupled with good sportsmanship instilled by adult role models can make a positive long-term influence on our nation's young people."
bullet Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) said: "We're not against students praying, athletes praying. That's not the issue. The issue is under what circumstances can state-supported institutions use their facilities to promote one particular prayer."
bullet Bobby Scott (D-VA) reminded the Congress that the U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled that government-sponsored prayer in school is unconstitutional.  He noted, "The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the federal government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer that American people can say."
bullet In an apparent attack on many non-Christian religious minorities, Rep.  James Traficant (D-Ohio) said that he was disturbed at "First Amendment mumbo-jumbo." He commented that the U.S. Constitution "never intended to separate God and people."  He added "A nation without God is a nation without order.
bullet Ron Barrier, a spokesperson for American Atheists, called the resolution "nonsense" and added that "there is nothing in the Constitution that vests congress with the power to  make laws promoting religion.  It's clearly a violation of the separation of state and church.  'Majority Rule' religion is not an American value, but Big Government Faith seems to be a bureaucratic specialty... Such non-binding resolutions are designed to pander for votes in future elections - votes based on emotion, not issues." 2

bullet 1999-NOV-15: The U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear arguments on a case involving student-led prayer at football games in public high schools during 2000-APR. Their decision was scheduled for 2000-JUN. The Galveston County, TX appeal is supported by state officials from AL, CO, KS, LA, MS, NE, SC AND TN. "Some parents and students had argued that the prayers increase pressure toward religious conformity." 3
bullet 1999-NOV-23:The American Center for Law and Justice, a religious organizations created by Pat Robertson, asked to become the official counsel of record in the Texas case. They offered to represent the school district without charge. Oral arguments were delivered before the U.S. Supreme Court in late 2000-MAR. In the meantime, many school boards throughout Texas continued to have religious invocations broadcast over the PA system before sports events.
bullet 1999-NOV-23: According to AANEWS, Indiana may be the next hot spot for prayers at public high-school football games. It has been a long standing practice for coaches to lead their players in a pre-game prayer. This obviously places the coaches, as representatives of the government, in a position where they support a single religion: Christianity. There is little doubt that it is as unconstitutional as teachers leading students in prayer in their classroom.
bullet 2000-JAN-5: Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, Governor George W. Bush, and the State of Texas had filed an amici curiae brief before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1999-MAR. They asked that the entire court re-hear the case that was originally studied only by a panel of three judges. They lost. On JAN-5, Cornyn, Bush, the States of Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas announced that they had issued an amici curiae brief in the appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. 
bullet 2000-MAR-27: The U.S. supreme court heard arguments on the Santa Fe case this week. In early March, 94% of Texas voters approved a non-binding resolution backing student-initiated prayer at public school sporting events.

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Supreme Court ruling in the Santa Fe case:

Consistent with numerous previous court rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court declared on 2000-JUN-19 that public school administrations cannot allow students to conduct formal prayers before school games. The vote was 6 to 3 -- the same ratio as the earlier decision by the lower court. Justice John Paul Stevens composed the majority report, saying in part:

"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. 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." He added that "the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as well as the sincere desire to include public prayer as a part of various occasions so as to mark those occasions' significance. [However] such religious activity in public schools, as elsewhere, must comport with the First Amendment. 4

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas cast the three dissenting votes. 

The court found that:
bullet Including a prayer in the game schedules was a state-sponsored religious activity, and thus was unconstitutional.
bullet Formal prayer unconstitutionally coerced attendees into participating in a religious activity 
bullet The state may not endorse an overtly religious message, even if the majority of the people want it.
bullet Prayer, if truly initiated by an individual student, is protected free speech. For example, a player can spontaneously call for a group prayer huddle. A person in the stands can assemble an informal group prayer.
bullet Truly voluntary prayer by students is always protected speech, both before, during, and after school.

The court rejected the arguments by the school district that the prayer was not coercive because nobody was required to attend the game or to participate in the invocation. The ruling stated: "The Constitution demands that schools not force on students the difficult choice between whether to attend these games or risk facing a personally offensive religious ritual..." Further, they wrote: "Even if we regard every high school student's decision to attend a home football game as purely voluntary, we are nevertheless persuaded that the delivery of a pre-game prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship." 5

The identity of the Roman Catholic and Mormon parents who initiated the lawsuit have not been released to prevent reprisals. A teacher had already ridiculed one of the student plaintiffs in the case, by characterizing her religion of Mormonism as "non-Christian" and "cult-like." This prompting other students to characterize the plaintiff's faith as "evil" and "kind of like the KKK."

Court documents revealed that school personnel had tried to discover the identities of the plaintiffs "by means of bogus petitions, questionnaires, individual interrogation or downright 'snooping'" The district court threatened the school district with "the harshest possible contempt sanctions and/or criminal liability" to halt the search for those responsible.

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  1. "Appeals court bans prayers at high school games," Maranatha Christian Journal, posted 1999-MAR-11
  2. "'Football Prayer' Resolution Is Government Support of 'Majority Rule' Christianity - Not Religious Freedom," American Atheists, AANEWS, 1999-NOV-4.
  3. Current news summary,, 1999-NOV-16
  4. The text of the Supreme Court's decision in Santa Fe Independent School Dst. v. Doe is at:
  5. "New prayer guides from D. of E. push religion, threaten school funding," American Atheists AANews, 2003-FEB-11.

Copyright © 1999 to 2001 incl., and 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Created 1999-NOV-7
Last updated 2003-FEB-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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