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June 4 Silencing Prayer in Schools

A landmark case that started in 1982 found that it was not allowed to have a minutes silence in Alabama Schools. Bitterly fought it went all the way to the Supreme Court who overruled the Alabama Courts ruling in its favour. The case tested the first amendment of the constitution which was intended to protect religious freedom.


Alabama where in a landmark case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against an Alabama statute that authorized a one-minute period of silence in all public schools “for meditation or voluntary prayer”. In its ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that this one-minute period of silence violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause which forms the constitutional right of freedom of religion.

The complaint, had been filed in May 1982 by a lawyer called Ishmael Jaffree on behalf of his three children, all of whom attended public schools in Mobile county, Alabama. Jaffree had been born Frederick Hobbs in 1944 to a very religious mother, but sadly he never knew his father. As a child he evangelized on a Cleveland street corner, "exhorting sinners to get right with God,". However, he soon turned his back on his faith and at Cleveland State University, he was influenced by a black atheist professor named Jaffree. "I started considering myself an Existentialist. I no longer believed the Christian faith was the faith and that Jesus Christ had blue eyes and white skin.” Hobbs changed his name at the age of 38 to reject "the slave-master path.” Frederick Hobbs became Ishmael Jaffree (in honour if his university mentor) and perhaps reflecting his own turmoil he explained ‘Ishmael means outcast." He discovered in 1981 that his children were being fed daily doses of the Lord's Prayer and grace at lunch, with an occasional bible reading. He felt that this violated the Constitution’s “separation of Church and State” clause, at the time, Alabama law authorized one minute of silence in all public schools “for meditation or voluntary prayer.”

Jaffree filed a lawsuit in the federal district court to strike down the law. Alabama state lawyers argued that the law called only for a “moment of silence,” and did not require a child to pray to a particular God or to pray at all. Jaffree’s lawyers argued that the law intended to establish religion in the schools. In addition, the lawyers pointed out that the children had been taught specific prayers, including “The Lord’s Prayer” and “God Is Great, God Is Good.” In some cases, students had been asked to recite prayers in place of a moment of silence. If children refused to participate, other students teased them. Thus, they argued, it clearly violated the First Amendment.

The first amendment had been passed by Congress in 1789 and ratified two years later stating that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof... The first 10 amendments, referred to as the Bill of Rights largely to the efforts of Representative James Madison, who studied the deficiencies of the Constitution pointed out by anti-federalists and then crafted a series of corrective proposals. The Establishment Clause in the first amendment acts as a double security, preventing religious control over the government as well as preventing political control over religion. Under it the federal government of the United States as well as the governments of all U.S. states and U.S. territories are prohibited from establishing or sponsoring religion. The concepts codified in these amendments, as formulated by Madison are built upon those found in earlier documents, especially the Magna Carta (1215) (see pod of Mar 24th)

The federal district court decided in favour of the state, saying that states had a right to establish an official religion. The judge, William Hand, had a reputation for being zealous in defending religious freedom. In a case against the Alabama Association of School Boards arguing that textbooks used in Alabama promoted secular humanism, and ironically as such were in violation of the Establishment clause, he ordered the removal of forty-four texts across the state in subjects such as history and social studies. During the Jaffree trial, Hand allowed groups of evangelical Christians to campaign; school officials led children in prayer in front of media. Hand ruled against Jaffree in 1983, but ultimately, the United States Supreme Court disagreed with Hand's assessment, finding Alabama's silent school prayer law unconstitutional in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985).


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