Wallace v. Jaffree 472 U.S. 38 (1985)

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WALLACE v. JAFFREE 472 U.S. 38 (1985)

A 6–3 Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice john paul stevens, held unconstitutional an Alabama statute that required public school children to observe a period of silence "for meditation or voluntary prayer." No member of the Court contested the constitutionality of the period of silence for meditation. As Justice sandra day o'connor said in her concurring opinion, no threat to religious liberty could be discerned from a room of "silent, thoughtful school children." Chief Justice warren e. burger added that there was no threat "even if they chose to pray." Burger willfully misunderstood or missed the point. Any student in any public school may pray voluntarily and silently at almost any time of the school day, if so moved. The state, in this case, sought to orchestrate group prayer by capitalizing on the impressionability of youngsters. Compulsory attendance laws and the coercive setting of the school provided a captive audience for the state to promote religion. Justice john paul stevens emphasized the fact that the state act was "entirely motivated by a purpose to advance religion" and had " no secular purpose." The evidence irrefutably showed that. Accordingly, the Alabama act failed to pass the test of lemon v. kurtzman (1971) used by the Court to determine whether a state violated the first amendment's prohibition against an establishment of religion.

Justice O'Connor, observing that Alabama already had a moment of silence law on its books, noted that during the silence, no one need be religious, no one's religious beliefs could be compromised, and no state encouragement of religion existed. "The crucial question," she wrote, "is whether the State has conveyed or attempted to convey the message that children should use the moment of silence for prayer." The only possible answer was that the state, by endorsing the decision to pray during the moment of silence, sponsored a religious exercise, thereby breaching the First Amendment's principle of separation of church and state.

Leonard W. Levy

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Wallace v. Jaffree 472 U.S. 38 (1985)

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