Seperation Of Church

& State Essay, Research Paper

The controversial issue of separating church and state in public schools was tested in the courts numerous times in the years preceding the Jaffree decision. These prior cases helped influence the Supreme Court decision in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985). This case pertains to three Alabama statutes possibly by law establishing a state religion in public schools. These statutes all had the same basic concept and were passed consecutively within just a few years of each other.

The first statute passed in 1978 by the Alabama legislature (16-1-20) established a “period of silence not to exceed one minute in duration, that should be observed for meditation” in all public schools of the state. The second statute passed in 1981 (16-1-20.2) authorized a period of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer.” “The third statute (16-1-20.2) was enacted in 1982, and stated that any teacher “in any educational institution within the state of Alabama, recognizing that the Lord God is one, at the beginning of any homeroom or any class” could lead a legislatively prescribed prayer” (Anglim 349). The second statute was the most constitutionally questioned issue and main part of the Supreme Courts decision.

In order to understand the Supreme Courts decision in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), we must first lay out what decision-making took place in the lower courts before getting to the Supreme Court of the land. In its first stage of this case Jaffree?s argument was put in front of the District Court to decide. The decision from the district court was that first statute had nothing wrong with it at all. Both statutes two and three were invalid because they were “an effort in part of the State of Alabama to encourage a religious activity” (Wallace 3). But what really started making this case more interesting was that even though the District Court found these two statutes invalid, in its opinion, Alabama had the right to establish a state religion if it chose to do so. This was the belief that “the establishment clause of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit the state from establishing a religion” (Wallace 4).

The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Courts interpretation that both the second and third statutes, “meditation or voluntary prayer” and “leading willing students in a prescribed prayer”, determining that they were both unconstitutional. Their decision was that the state was bound by the establishment clause of the first amendment. Since the appellant party was no longer questioning the validity of the first statute, asking for a “moment of meditation”, this question was not answered by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court did not really get into the third question because both lower courts had found it to be unconstitutional, and it followed previous court precedents on government-prescribed prayer that found it invalid.

The majority opinion in Wallace v. Jaffree was delivered by Justice Stevens, in which Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Powell joined. The court decision was to affirm the Appeals Court decision, thereby stating that the statute violated the first amendment. Stevens said that the establishment clause requires government neutrality and that this statute also failed the three-part Lemon test (Lemon v. Kurtzman 1971) because it did not have a secular purpose. There was no real purpose except to promote religious beliefs in changing the original statute to include the words “or voluntary prayer”.

Stevens remarked on the conclusion of the District Court, that the Federal Constitution imposes no obstacle to Alabama?s establishment of a state religion. He stated that States have no power to restrict the individual freedoms protected by our first amendment just like Congress. The state of Alabama had no constitutional right to create a state religion. The prior decision in Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), established that indeed the fourteenth amendment rendered the legislatures of the states as incompetent as Congress to establish religion or prohibit the free the free exercise thereof. In this area I believe that the state of Alabama was not religiously neutral.

When the court is deciding over a case that involves the establishment clause, the statute in question should pass a three-part test called the Lemon Test. The Lemon test was created in the decision of Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1970. The three parts of the test are 1. The statute must have a secular legislative purpose. 2. Its principal or primary effect must be one that nether enhances nor inhibits religion. 3. The statute must not foster an excessive governmental entanglement with religion. The Alabama statute failed the Lemon test, which invalidates legislation having a religious, rather than a secular purpose. Because it had no clear secular purpose it violates the first amendment of the constitution.

I believe that an important fact that made this statute fail was the testimony of State Senator Donald Holmes, its prime sponsor.? During a District Court evidentiary hearing, “He explained that the bill was an ?effort to return voluntary prayer to our public schools?it is a beginning and a step in the right direction” (Wallace 4). He also testified that this was the only purpose that the bill had in his mind. I believe that this helped prove that the bill had no secular purpose as needed to pass the Lemon test.

The court believed that there was enough evidence that the Alabama legislature changed the first law for the sole purpose of endorsing prayer in public schools.

Chief Justice Burger makes some very valid points in his dissent in this case. He discusses four main points why he thinks that 16-1-20.1 should be considered valid under law. One issue in this case in which he criticizes is that when the Supreme Court opens for session, it opens with an invocation to God. Burger believes that this is very important because if the court is neutral in religion while doing this, than the Alabama State schools can be neutral while informing students that praying is allowed during their moment of silence. One point that he strictly believes in is that in the courts decision they were not looked at the statute as a whole but as a continuation of the prior statute resulting in the main focus being on the “or voluntary prayer” part. Another point that Burger makes in his decision is that the Lemon test cannot resolve every establishment clause issue. “The Court today has ignored the wise admonition of Justice Goldberg that “the measure of constitutional adjudication is the ability and willingness to distinguish between real threat and a mere shadow”"(Wallace 30). This quote helps sum up Burgers argument that the decision was wrong and that the court put down a statute that could not of threatened the freedoms of religion every U.S. citizen has. Based on my readings of Irons and the Rees-Redlich debate I would have to say that I do agree with the point Burger made when stating that the statute should have been looked at more as a whole. I strongly disagree with the last point he makes about this statute not being a threat. I believe that there is proof it was a threat because of the third statute that was found to be unconstitutional. I think that this is a good dissent if you believe that no threat has been made in passing these statutes. But I believe that the last statute was a continued plan to bring religion back into schools. If this is not considered a threat by Burger than what is? I believe that Norman Redlich would agree with me that a threat has already been made here, and fortunately it was found to be invalid.

In White?s dissent he believes that the words “or prayer” make it easier for the institution to be neutral in the matter. If the words were not included than it would make things more difficult for teachers, in the sense of if a student asks the teacher if he could pray. These words reduce the risk of a teacher endorsing religion in school. I believe that in calling the moment of silence for meditation or prayer influences a student?s perspective on religion. If a student has no belief or doesn?t know what to believe he could be easily persuaded by other students pressuring him to be a part of the crowd. Peer pressure works with a lot of different things. Possibly even religion if the student is young enough. I also disagree with Justice White?s opinion to reassess prior cases dealing with the establishment clause. Grover Rees may have agreed with him in this statement: “?the best the courts can do in “interpreting” the constitution is to divine and enforce the values that are important to Americans today” (Rees). I believe that these prior decisions were made abiding by the law, and should not be reconsidered until a new case comes along that challenges them. In thinking of the Irons reading and Rees-Redlich debate I would have to disagree with this dissent in that I believe that the change in the second statute is dangerous.

Justice Rhenquist?s dissent on whether the Alabama statute is a legal statute is very interesting. His dissent attacked the establishment test because he felt that there were numerous problems with it. Rhenquist said in his dissent, “Nothing in the Establishment Clause requires government to be strictly neutral between religion and irreligion, nor does that Clause prohibit Congress or the States from pursuing legitimate secular ends through nondiscriminatory sectarian means” (Wallace 33). Rhenqist’s opinion is backed by a lot of facts that seem to make a lot of sense. There is religion everywhere in our government, from our money to swearing by the bible when taking the witness stand in trials. Redlich would have voted with the majority if he was a Supreme Court justice, but from my understanding I think that he would have to understand some of the points that Rhenquist made.

I believe that this reading has affected my understanding of other cases on our list by helping me understand the views of the decision-makers precisely. I have begun to understand the issues that each of the Justices works with when making their decision. It is a very difficult process with everybody having different perceptions of the intent of the framers was. I think after reading this case I am beginning to appreciate our Supreme Court Justices more, because I agree with all the aspects of the majority opinion in the Jaffree case. I do believe that some of the dissenting opinions have some very interesting philosophies that many people would have to agree with.


Anglim, Christopher Thomas. 1999. Religion and the

Law: A Dictionary Denver: ABC-CLIO


Wallace v. Jaffree 472U.S.38 (1985)


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