In 1978, Alabama enacted a statute authorizing a 1-minute period of silence “for meditation or voluntary prayer.” Jaffree filed suit on behalf of his 3 children attending Alabama public schools.
A state statute that authorizes a 1-minute period of silence in all public schools “for meditation or voluntary prayer” violates the First Amendment‘s Establishment Clause.
In 1978, Alabama enacted a statute authorizing a 1-minute period of silence “for meditation or voluntary prayer.” Jaffree filed suit on behalf of his 3 children, all of whom attended public schools in Mobile County, Alabama. He maintained that his children had experienced acts of religious indoctrination, despite multiple requests that these religious activities cease. Defendant argued that the moment of silence lacked the coerciveness of a read prayer requiring active participation.
Does the Alabama statute violate the First Amendment‘s Establishment Clause?
Yes, the Alabama statute violates the First Amendment‘s Establishment Clause.
A silent moment lacks the coerciveness of school-sponsored prayers that this Court has previously struck down. Governments do not violate the Establishment Clause unless they attempt to establish an official religion or show preference to one religious group over another.
The Court does not mention that the bill’s sponsor also testified that one of his purposes in drafting the moment-of-silence bill was to clear up a widespread misunderstanding that a schoolchild is legally prohibited from engaging in silent, individual prayer once he steps inside a public school building. That testimony is at least as important as the statement that the Court relied on, as it presents a permissible secular purpose.
Without pressuring those who do not wish to pray, the statute simply creates an opportunity to think, plan, or to pray if one wishes–in the same way that Congress provides chaplains and chapels. The government may accommodate religious needs when it does so in a wholly neutral and noncoercive manner.
The sponsor of the bill that became the statute in question, Senator Donald Holmes, inserted into the legislative record a statement indicating that the legislation was an “effort to return to voluntary prayer to the public schools.” Given this legislative intent, the Alabama statute fails the Lemon test that the Court established in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). First, the law was not secular in its intent, given that it had a religious purpose. Second, the law advanced religion, as it allowed teachers to engage students in guided prayer.