Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe

Following is the case brief for Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000)

Case Summary of Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe:

  • Santa Fe High School had a student school chaplain, approved by the school administration, who would read prayers over the public announcement system before home football games.
  • Several families filed suit, claiming that the prayers violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
  • While the suit was pending, the school changed the policy so that the students could elect whether they wanted an “invocation” before games, and elect who would do it.
  • The District Court approved the school’s new policy, but modified it so that the “invocation” was a non-sectarian, non-proselytizing prayer.
  • The Fifth Circuit reversed the school policy, even as modified by the District Court.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit.  It held that the school policy, even the one modified by the District Court, is an attempt by the public school to coerce the student body to support a particular religion.  Therefore, it violated the Establishment Clause.

Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Santa Fe High School, a public school, used to have a student elected as “Student Council Chaplain,” and that student would deliver a prayer over the school’s public address system before each home football game.  Two families, one Mormon and one Catholic, sued, claiming that the practice (and others like it) violated the First Amendment.

While the lawsuit was pending, the school adopted a new dual-election policy, whereby the students could elect (i) whether to have “invocations” at games, and (ii) the person who would give the “invocations.”  The school students elected to have the invocations, and they selected a spokesperson.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court allowed the new dual-election policy, but ordered that the policy must permit only non-sectarian, non-proselytizing prayer.
  • The Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that the school policy, even as modified by the District Court, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Did the school’s policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?  Yes.


The decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games, sanctioned by public school officials, as part of the public school event violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.


The principles in this case are controlled by the Court’s decision in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992).  In that case, which prohibited a rabbi from delivering a prayer at a middle school graduation, the Court held that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way that establishes religion.  The same is true here.

  • Argument that the “Invocation” is “Private” Speech

A delivery of an “invocation” on school property, at school-sponsored events, over the school’s public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and based on a school policy that expressly encourages public prayer is not “private” speech.  It is government-sanctioned speech, which violates the Establishment clause.

The school’s arguments about “private” speech are unpersuasive.  In fact, allowing a student speaker to be chosen by a majority of students will necessarily result in silencing the minority’s views.  Further, despite the District Court’s order and the school’s arguments, the “invocations” have religious content.

  • Argument that Football Games are Voluntary

With regard to the argument that school football games are voluntary and therefore there is no coerced religious exercise, it is important to note there are some students – like cheerleaders and team members – who must attend and even get course credit for doing so.  Plus, the school ignores the obvious social pressure, or genuine desire, to participate in American high school football.  Students should not have to choose between attending games, and avoiding a religious ritual for which they do not want to be a part.

  • Argument that the Court’s Decision is Premature

Finally, the argument that the Court’s decision is premature because no “invocation” has yet to be delivered is without merit.  The Constitution requires that the Court remain mindful of the subtle ways people try to erode the Establishment Clause.  The school policy in this case is a governmental mechanism to turn a school into a forum for religious debate, and it empowers the majority of students to impose their religion on the minority.  That is not acceptable or constitutional.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Dissenting Opinion (Rehnquist):

The tone of the Court’s opinion “bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life.”  The Establishment Clause, however, has let a little religion into public life at times.  Further, there has been no constitutional violation yet, so the Court’s decision is premature.


Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe is an important case because it carefully honors the Establishment Clause’s promise to ensure that government, a public school in this case, does not establish one religion over others.  The discrimination against those who did not agree with the majority’s religious beliefs at Santa Fe High School was clear by the fact that the Respondents felt the need to remain anonymous, as indicated by their name in the caption as “Doe.”  The Court’s majority opinion, in fact, explained that the Respondents were actually, genuinely in fear of being discovered because the religious discrimination in the community was so severe.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments