United States Supreme Court rulings in 1962 and 1963 held that state-sponsored
school prayer and Bible reading in public schools violated the First
Amendment. However, many schools in
Alabama ignored the rulings. In defiance
of the rulings of the Supreme Court, the Alabama legislature in 1978 passed a
law that allowed teachers to lead students in a one-minute silent
meditation. To show further contempt of
the ruling of the Supreme Court, Alabama lawmakers in 1981 included voluntary
prayer to the silent meditation mandate.
A year later, Governor Fob James assembled a special
legislative session in which he put forth the notion that Alabama
schoolteachers lead “willing” students in a prayer composed by his 25-year-old
son, Fob James III. The state
legislature rubber stamped the devotion.
On May 28, 1982,
Ishmael Jaffree, an agnostic and civil rights attorney of Mobile County,
Alabama, filed a complaint on behalf of his three minor children. In this complaint, Jaffree asserted that his
children were experiencing religious indoctrination despite his repeated
requests that the religious prayers, led by the teachers of his children, be
stopped. Defendants in the case were the
governor of Alabama, members of the Mobile County School board, various state officials,
and the minor plaintiffs’ three teachers.
The complaint questioned the constitutionality of the following three
statutes: (1) the creation of a minute of silence for mediation, (2) the option
of voluntary prayer, and (3) the authorization of teachers to recite prayer
with “willing students.”
Relief Sought: Jaffree wanted a law that prevented the Mobile
County School board and the public schools in Alabama from practicing the daily
one-minute-long religious prayer services or other forms of religious observances. He did not want the law to support or show
favor towards certain religions, as it may lead to discrimination and unfairness
towards those who do not practice those religions.
The District Court ruled the laws constitutional. On appeal, the Federal Courts of Appeals
overturned the decision of the federal district court and declared the laws in
conflict with the Establishment Clause principle that the government must
remain neutral toward religion. Alabama
appealed to the Supreme Court. In a 6-3
decision, the United States Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the Appellate
Court in that a one-minute period of silence for meditation or voluntary prayer
in public schools is unconstitutional.