Supreme Court Cases

Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985

Historical Background

In Zorach v. Clauson, 1952, the Supreme Court declared that Americans "are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates public service to their spiritual needs."

Differing decisions handed down by the Court in the last 50 years, including the celebrated Lemon test of 1971, often seemed to contradict one another. The Court, like the country, struggled to achieve what journalist and commentator Fred Friendly called a "delicate balance" between religion and government.

Throughout the 1960s, case after case before the Court required a decision regarding the separation of religious activities from the public schools. In its Engel, Schempp, and Murray decisions, the Court ordered schools to end Bible-reading, group prayer, or a time for prayer as an official part of the school day. A storm of protest followed these decisions, while many school districts substituted a "moment of silence" for previous religious activities.

Those who objected to the "wall of separation" challenged the Court. The Establishment Clause, they argued, was intended only to prevent the establishment of a State church such as the Church of England. "The intent of the Framers"—as a point of argument before the Court—became a significant question in Wallace v. Jaffree.

Circumstances of the Case

Beginning in 1978, the Alabama State legislature enacted a series of laws that some people believed were designed to encourage prayer in the public schools, despite the Supreme Court's previous restrictions on such activities. One 1978 law authorized a period of silence at the beginning of the school day "for meditation." In 1981, a second law authorized that the time be used for "mediation and voluntary prayer." Then, in 1982, the legislature authorized teachers to lead "willing students" in a State-written, prescribed prayer to "Almighty God…the Creator and Supreme Judge of the World."

In an unusual decision, the federal district judge hearing the case declared the laws constitutional, stating that "Alabama has the power to establish a State religion if it chooses to do so." The Jaffrees appealed. The Federal Court of Appeals overturned the judge's findings about a State religion for Alabama and also found the two laws in conflict with the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. Alabama then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Constitutional Issues

The case did indeed involve the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. Could a State in the United States establish Christianity as the "State church"? Does the 1st Amendment, as applied to the States by the 14th Amendment, override any State rule about religion? Did the Alabama prayer have a "secular purpose"? Did a State-authorized, voluntary prayer to be recited "by willing students" violate the "separation of church and state"?


For Wallace (State of Alabama): Jefferson and Madison, strong Bill of Rights advocates, had no intention of isolating government from religion. Instead, they sought to prevent the establishment of a national church with a favored status, and to prevent discrimination against various religious groups. The Court must not forbid Alabama from endorsing prayer as a "favored practice." The law allows children to pray if they wish and not pray if they wish. The school cannot tell children that they cannot pray. The finding of the Federal Appeals Court should be reversed.

For Jaffree: There is a clear effort underway by the State of Alabama to "bring religion back into the public schools." Every public statement by the author of the Alabama law has restated that idea. The law places the force of the State of Alabama behind voluntary prayer; thus the State is no longer "neutral." The law has no "secular purpose" as established by the test created in Lemon, 1971. The moment of prayer is unconstitutional and the finding of the Federal Appeals Court should be upheld.

Decision and Rationale

The 6–3 decision of the majority was delivered by Justice Stevens. The Court overturned the Alabama "moment of silence law," terming it a violation of the 1st Amendment prohibition of government involvement in religion. Justice Stevens noted that the Court had created a test for examining questions about the separation of church and state. In the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971, the court set up a "three-pronged test." The three criteria were as follows: (1) the law must have a secular legislative purpose; (2) its primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) it must not foster "an excessive entanglement with religion."

Stevens found it "unnecessary to comment at length on the District Court's remarkable conclusion that the Federal Constitution imposes no obstacle to Alabama's establishment of a State religion." The law was ruled invalid after the application of only the first part of the Lemon test. "[T]he State did not show evidence of any secular legislative purpose." Stevens noted that the author of the law testified in court that his purpose was to bring voluntary prayer to the schools. Stevens believed that the use of the words "voluntary prayer" was the main problem with the Alabama law. The words, and the implication of the Alabama law, made such voluntary prayer "a favored practice." That situation was, Stevens said, "quite different from merely protecting every student's right to engage in voluntary prayer during an appropriate moment of silence."

Justice Rehnquist, White, and Chief Justice Burger dissented. Burger, in his dissent, stated that "it makes no sense to say that Alabama has 'endorsed prayer' by merely enacting a new statue 'to specify expressly that voluntary prayer is one of the authorized activities during a moment of silence.'"

Justice Rehnquist examined at length the history of the Establishment Clause, and arrived at the conclusion that the Court had strayed from the intent of the Framers. This was, according to Rehnquist, the prevention of the establishment of a state church and the protection of religious minorities. The intent of the Framers was not the creation of an "absolute wall of separation" between church and state.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Why do you think Justice Stevens took such careful note of the words "voluntary prayer"? Do you think Justice Stevens might have found the Alabama laws constitutional if those words were not included?
  2. What other areas of public life are affected by questions about a "wall of separation"? What is the appropriate relationship between government and religion?