Federal court says: It’s okay to pray (in public school)!

Question: What impact does the decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chandler v. James have on the ability of children to have freedom to pray in public schools?

Answer: Thank you for your inquiry regarding the very important case of Chandler v. James which was decided by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal on July 13, 1999. The decision of the court of appeals reversed a decision of an Alabama District Court in which Judge Ina DeMent had barred all student prayer in the public schools of Alabama. He even installed what came to be referred to as “prayer police” to ensure that Alabama schools complied with his orders.

This district court decision by Judge DeMent was considered appalling by Christians all across the country and the appeal was carefully monitored by many Americans concerned with freedom of speech and religious expression. Judge DeMent’s ruling prohibited DeKalb County schools from “permitting” vocal prayer or other devotional speech. The judge had required school officials to forbid students from praying while in school or at any school-related events, even on their own initiative.

The case was originally filed at the district court level by the ACLU for a vice-principal and a student in the DeKalb County school system. These plaintiffs were challenging the constitutionality of an Alabama statute that contained the following provision:

“On public school, or other property, non-sectarian, non-proselytizing student-initiated voluntary prayer, invocation and/or benedictions, shall be permitted during compulsory or non-compulsory school-related student assemblies, school related student sporting events, school-related graduation or commencement ceremonies, and other school-related events.” Ala. Code Û 16-1-20.3(b) (1995).

The ACLU alleged that, by applying the statute and permitting students to pray, the DeKalb County School Board had engaged in unconstitutional school-sponsored religious activity and sued the Governor of Alabama and the DeKalb County School Board. Judge DeMent agreed with the ACLU and held that the statute was unconstitutional. He permanently enjoined the DeKalb County School Board from enforcing the statute and forbade them to permit students to pray in school, even on their own initiative.

Judge DeMent's decision caused a furor in Alabama schools. The Christian Law Association was involved in helping Christian students take legal protest measures against this decision through petitions and statements of appreciation to the Alabama legislature for having enacted the challenged legislation. The Governor of Alabama appealed Judge DeMent1s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit as did the DeKalb County School Board. The School Board argued on appeal that the district court could not constitutionally enjoin religious student speech, pointing out that the Supreme Court has made it very clear that “[t]here is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clause protect.” (quoting Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 250 (1990)).

The court of appeals limited its review of Judge DeMent’s Permanent Injunction to the issue of whether the district court might constitutionally prohibit student-initiated religious speech in its schools. The court of appeals held that it may not. The ACLU had argued to the court of appeals that the state has a positive duty to censor student speech if it is religious. The Court held that student-initiated religious speech, even if it includes prayer or incidentally advances religion, does not violate the Establishment Clause. Rather, it is this type of private speech that the First Amendment protects. Student religious speech may be subject only to the same reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions placed on all other student speech in the public school. The court made clear that any suppression of student-initiated speech, merely because it was religious, would demonstrate, not neutrality, but hostility towards religious speech:

The bottom line is: the court of appeals held that nonsectarian, non-proselytizing student-initiated prayer may be permitted at school-related events. The Court said that “cleansing” public schools of all religious expression would inevitably result in the “establishment” of disbelief-or atheism-as the State's religion and that the government may not prefer disbelief over religion. Permitting students to speak religiously signifies neither state approval nor disapproval of that speech. Such permission merely signifies that the State acknowledges its constitutional duty to tolerate religious expression. Only in this way is true constitutional neutrality achieved.

Because genuinely student-initiated religious speech is private speech endorsing religion, it is fully protected by both the Free Exercise and the Free Speech Clauses of the Constitution.

In resolving the tension between the right to pray and the right to be free from government-mandated prayer, the court of appeals specifically held that:

  1. genuinely student-initiated religious speech must be permitted;
  2. student's individual decision to pray or otherwise speak religiously must not be by the State's command;
  3. student religious speech must be without oversight or supervision and subject only to the same reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions as secular student speech in school.

The court of appeals held that even if permitting student-initiated religious speech advances religion in some sense, this does not mean the speech violates the Establishment Clause. Furthermore, the fact that religious speech might be offensive to one or even to many other persons does not make it unconstitutional. Only when the speech is actually commanded, rather than merely permitted, by the State does the religious speech unconstitutionally coerce the listener.

Since the court of appeals remanded this case back to the district court, further action consistent with its decision may be forthcoming, but the district court is now prohibited from interfering with the basic free speech rights of religious students.

You can read the entire decision by going to: http://www.law.emory.edu/11circuit/july99/97-6898.man.html (See Chandler v. James, Nos. 97-6898, 97-6953, USCA, 11th Circuit, July 13, 1999)

Written by Barbara J. Weller
Christian Law Association
Used by Permission

Published: 9 February 2006