Wallace v. Jaffree: Summary & Decision

Instructor: Janell Blanco

Janell has an MBA.

In this lesson, we'll explore the landmark case of Wallace v. Jaffree, which was filed in 1982 but ruled on in 1985. There will be a summary of the case, and then we'll discuss the court's decision about the case.

Wallace v. Jaffree Summary

Parents have the right to know what is taking place in their child's classroom. If you are a parent or plan to be a parent, how would you feel about your child taking part in a practice that you do not agree with?

Sometimes, parents will talk to the administrators or school board members, and sometimes parents will just let the children take part in school activities regardless of their beliefs.

In Alabama, where the Wallace v. Jaffree case took place, a parent found himself faced with this choice. A 1978 statute, which authorized a moment of silence in the classroom, was amended in 1981 to allow meditation or prayer. The legislation's sponsor stated that the sole purpose of this change was to bring prayer back into schools. In 1982, Alabama Governor Fob James, a staunch supporter of school prayer, called a special legislative session seeking approval for a mandate that would allow teachers to willingly lead prayers in the classroom. James recommended that teachers use a prayer written by his son. The legislative session was successful, and teachers throughout the state were encouraged to lead prayer in the classroom each day. This state legislation directly conflicted with a 1962 United States Supreme Court ruling, which stated that organized prayer in the classroom is unconstitutional.

The schools in Mobile County followed the new state law, and the school permitted the teachers and students to take a minute each day to meditate or pray. Ishmael Jaffree, a citizen of Mobile County, Alabama, had three children in the school system. He was not in favor of the minute of prayer or meditation because he was an agnostic and did not pray or meditate. Jaffree also viewed this law and practice of prayer and meditation as offensive and unconstitutional and said his children had been ostracized for refusing to join in religious activities in school.

Ishmael Jaffree

Prior to filing his case, Jaffree spoke with one of his children's teachers and protested the prayer. The teacher said that the class would continue the prayer but that participation would be voluntary. In other words, Jaffree's child was not required to take part in the prescribed prayer.

Jaffree filed a lawsuit in 1982 against his children's three teachers, stating that the one-minute of prayer or meditation is unconstitutional. The suit was later expanded to include Governor Fob James, various school officials, and state education officials.

Let's see how the courts ruled in this case.

District Court Ruling

The District Court ruled that the implementation of a moment of silence at the beginning of the day, as established in the 1978 statute, was not unconstitutional. The court also dismissed Jaffree's claim that prayer or even a prescribed prayer was unconstitutional, because, in the court's opinion, Alabama had the power to establish a state religion if it chose to do so. The case then moved on to the Court of Appeals.

Court of Appeals Ruling

The Court of Appeals did not agree with the District Court and felt that Jaffree did show that the moment of meditation or prayer did encourage and influence students to partake in a religious activity. The Court of Appeals also felt this was a decision that needed to be deferred to the United States Supreme Court.

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