Santa Fe ISD v. Doe (2000), Part One: Overview
If I could conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.
George Washington, Letter to the United Baptist Chamber of Virginia (May 1789)
On the surface, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000) rose out of fairly mundane circumstances to become a defining moment in jurisprudence involving prayer and public schools.
Santa Fe is a rural district in southeastern Texas, not far from Galveston. They typically began home football games with prayer, and included similar expressions of faith during graduation. A Mormon family and a Catholic family complained, and the case worked its way up to the Supreme Court.
The school modified its policies along the way so that students first voted on whether or not to have an opening prayer at games, and when they voted 'yes' (there was never really any doubt about that part) they’d cast ballots to see who would lead it. The district hoped this would make the prayer a student-driven activity and insulate it from constitutional challenges.
The Supreme Court declared that the prayers were taking place on school grounds using school equipment at a function many students were required to attend. While other students were technically there “voluntarily,” the games were such an entrenched part of school culture that for all practical purposes they were an essential school function.
Any praying over the intercom, no matter how authorities attempted to obfuscate the school’s role, violated the establishment clause. This case thus joined Lee v. Weisman (1992), Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), and others dating back to Abington and Engel in the early 1960s as a clear statement of exactly where that "wall" between church and state was to be built - at least when it came to schools and corporate prayer.
The First Amendment's Religion Clauses mean that religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State…
It must not be forgotten then, that while concern must be given to define the protection granted to an objector or a dissenting nonbeliever, these same Clauses exist to protect religion from government interference.
James Madison, the principal author of the Bill of Rights, did not rest his opposition to a religious establishment on the sole ground of its effect on the minority. A principal ground for his view was: "Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation"…
Lee v. Weisman (1992), Majority Opinion
The First Amendment, as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits government from promoting one religion over another, or religion in general. Period.
That’s the important stuff to remember if you’re gathering up case law, or studying for an American Government exam. It’s the part which will be cited as precedent in any similar subsequent cases. You really don't even need to finish this post, let alone read Parts Two or Three.
If that's you, thanks for dropping by. Catch you later.
But for those choosing to push on... it’s in the specifics of the Santa Fe case that things get interesting. It’s in the personal stories behind the decision that that we find some of the most persuasive examples of why that "wall of separation" is so essential to civilized society.
In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Horatio Spofford (March 17, 1814)
Children who failed to demonstrate proper “belief” were emotionally and physically abused by peers, and in some cases by adults as well. Teachers, parents, and community leaders manifested behavior and attitudes more consistent with witch hunts from the Middle Ages than educated 21st century professionals at school board meetings.
It was devastating for those not in the majority, and corrupting for those who were.
I’ll stick to more traditional sources and clearly documented modern American ideals as expressed by our Founders and interpreted by our courts. Our Framers weren't perfect, but they were a uniquely talented and educated bunch. They were certainly idealists in some ways, but none were under any illusions regarding human nature.
When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain. But the purposes underlying the Establishment Clause go much further than that.
Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion...
The history of governmentally established religion, both in England and in this country, showed that whenever government had allied itself with one particular form of religion, the inevitable result had been that it had incurred the hatred, disrespect and even contempt of those who held contrary beliefs. That same history showed that many people had lost their respect for any religion that had relied upon the support of government to spread its faith.
Engel v. Vitale (1962), Majority Opinion
It will be tempting to dismiss Santa Fe, TX, as an anomaly. A particularly virulent small-town community in which things got out of hand.
But the dynamics are no different from those of any homogenous group willing to blur faith and secular institutions. The stories are chilling, but not because folks in Santa Fe were particularly horrible individuals. The stories are troubling because the folks in Santa Fe are just like most people – and humans in their natural state are tribal, and violent, and cruel, and narrow-minded.
Civilization is difficult. It requires individual sacrifice, and collective authority to maintain the boundaries and behaviors we’ve agreed in our more rational moments are necessary for the good of the whole. Our Framers didn’t enshrine religious liberty in the First Amendment to be poetic, or codify some behavior they figured would naturally occur anyway. It was added to the Constitution because they knew that some very important things required perpetual vigilance and extreme measures to defend.
Natural law may decree that all men have unalienable rights, but it certainly doesn’t suggest it’s in our nature to defend those rights for others at all times in all places, whatever the inconvenience to ourselves. Hence this bit:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
The Declaration of Independence (1776)
Does it hurt anyone for there to be a short prayer at graduation, or over the intercom before a football game? Maybe. Maybe not. We can argue about that another time.
But does it hurt anyone for an institution like a public school to become an arbiter of the supernatural? To pick winners and losers in their spiritual journeys? To supplant parents, clergy, or the Holy Spirit in shaping beliefs and fomenting attitudes?
Probably, yeah. And once it starts, even a little, it’s difficult to leaven only selected parts of that loaf.
Such mingling of state and faith is harmful enough towards dissenters, or anyone not demonstrating sufficient enthusiasm for whichever theology happens to be in vogue that year. That’s what we’ll look at in Part Two. The stories are troubling, but sadly not particularly surprising.
In Part Three, we’ll focus on something too often and too easily overlooked in these discussions – the inherent damage done to faith itself when mingled with secular institutions and authority.
That persecution is harmful for the persecuted is self-evident; that it’s equally harmful for the persecutors is in many ways a far more uncomfortable truth.
The real problem in Santa Fe was much bigger than whether or not to pray at a football game. It was about what the leaven of state authority does to genuine faith, and the corrupting power of monolithic belief. It was about how easily we move from stifling dissent to crushing dissenters – all in the name of defending religious liberty.
It’s why we should remain dogged in our defense of the First Amendment, now and always, no matter how inconvenient and unreasonable it might periodically seem to be. No matter what sorts of nuts it may seem to be protecting.
It’s at such times, strangely enough, that it’s most actively and crucially protecting us.