The Alabama School Prayer Case: Chandler v. Siegelman
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
The Alabama School Prayer Case:
Chandler v. Siegelman
David M. Ackerman
American Law Division
In Chandler v. James in 1997 a federal district court in Alabama held a statute
authorizing "non-sectarian, non-proselytizing, student-initiated voluntary prayer" at all
public school events to violate the establishment of religion clause of the First
Amendment. To enforce that ruling, Judge DeMent issued an injunction barring the
enforcement of the statute and enjoining school officials in DeKalb County, Alabama,
from fostering and engaging in a variety of evangelical activities in the schools. That
decision and injunction became the subject of intense political controversy in Alabama
and elsewhere. Governor James pursued appeals to both the Supreme Court and the
Eleventh Circuit contending that the decision and the injunction ought to be vacated on
the grounds the establishment clause has no applicability to the states. Both courts
denied the Governor’s petition. But in a separate appeal by the state Attorney General,
the Eleventh Circuit agreed that the injunction’s prohibition barring school officials from
permitting any student-initiated vocal prayer or devotional speech at school sponsored
events violated the students’ free speech and free exercise of religion rights. The
appellate court upheld, however, the district court’s appointment of a monitor to oversee
implementation of the injunction. Nonetheless, the court vacated the district court’s
injunction and remanded it for rewriting in light of the appellate decision. The Supreme
Court subsequently vacated this decision for reconsideration in light of its ruling in Santa
Fe Independent School District v. Doe. But in Chandler v. Siegelman the Eleventh
Circuit reaffirmed its previous decision; and on June 18, 2001, the Supreme Court
refused to review that reaffirmation. This report will no longer be updated.
Background. The statute and most of the practices at issue in Chandler v. James
echo earlier efforts in Alabama to encourage religious activities in the public schools. In
1978 the Alabama legislature enacted a statute authorizing a one-minute period of silence
in all public elementary schools "for meditation."1 In 1981, during Fob James' first term
as Governor, it enacted a second statute authorizing a one-minute period of silence in all
1 Alabama Code § 16-1-20 (1995).
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
public schools "for meditation or voluntary prayer,"2 and in 1982 it enacted a third statute
authorizing teachers to lead "willing students" in a prayer of the teacher's own devise or
in one specified in the statute.3 Upon suit challenging the constitutionality of the latter two
statutes, the state argued that the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment
does not apply to the states and Alabama could establish a state religion if it chose, and
that argument proved successful in the trial court.4 But that decision was promptly
overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit,5 and in separate6
decisions in 1984 and 1985 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the appellate court's rulings.
In the latter decision the Court specifically reaffirmed "the proposition that the several
States have no greater power to restrain the individual freedoms protected by the First
Amendment than does the Congress of the United States," terming the trial court's ruling7
to the contrary "remarkable."
In 1993 the Alabama legislature enacted a fourth statute, this one providing for
student-initiated prayer at public school events. In its operative section the statute stated:
On public school, other public, or other property, non-sectarian, non-proselytizing
student-initiated voluntary prayer, invocations 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 § 16-1-20.3(b) (1995).
This statute was a response, in part, to the Supreme Court’s decision in Lee v. Weisman8
in 1992 in which the Court held unconstitutional a public secondary school's inclusion of
clergy-led prayers at its graduation ceremony. Soon after that decision the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the Fifth Circuit differentiated a Texas school district's policy of allowing the
graduating class to select students to give non-proselytizing, non-sectarian prayers at their
graduation ceremonies and held it to be constitutional.9 After the Supreme Court chose
not to review the Fifth Circuit's decision, efforts to replicate that approach to school prayer
began to mushroom. The 1993 Alabama statute was one result of those efforts.
2 Id. § 16-1-20.1 (1995).
3 Id. § 16-1-20.2 (1995). The prayer in the statute had been composed by one of the Governor's sons.
4 Jaffree v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, Alabama, 554 F.Supp. 1104 (S.D.
5 Jaffree v. Wallace, 705 F.2d 1526 (11th Cir. 1983).
6 See Wallace v. Jaffree, 466 U.S. 924 (1984), aff'g mem., 705 F.2d 1526 (11th Cir. 1983) (summarily
affirming the appellate court’s ruling holding the third statute unconstitutional) and Wallace v. Jaffree,
472 U.S. 38 (1985) (upholding in a 6-3 ruling the appellate court's ruling holding the second statute
7 Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38,48-49 (1985).
8 505 U.S. 577 (1992).
9 Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, 977 F.2d 963 (5th Cir. 1992), cert. den., 508 U.S.
The Federal District Court's Decision on Constitutionality
In 1996 the ACLU of Alabama instituted suit challenging the constitutionality of the
statute both on its face and as implemented on behalf of a vice-principal of a school in
DeKalb County and a student in one of the County’s schools.10 On March 12, 1997, a
federal district court held the statute to be unconstitutional.11 Judge Ira DeMent,
(appointed by President Bush in 1992) held in part that the statute infringed on students'
free speech and prayer rights in violation of the free exercise and freedom of speech
clauses of the First Amendment. Students, the court said, have the constitutional right to
engage in sectarian, proselytizing religious speech at times in the public schools; and the
Alabama statute defined their rights in this respect "too narrowly."
The court further held the statute to violate the establishment of religion clause.
Analyzing its constitutionality under several tests, the court said the statute had the non-
secular purpose of restoring prayer to the public schools, had a primary effect of endorsing
religious speech and giving it preference at school events over non-religious speech,
coerced students into participating in religious activity, and precipitated excessive
entanglement by requiring school officials to monitor the student prayers in order to ensure
they were nonsectarian and nonproselytizing.
On June 23, 1997, Governor James sent Judge DeMent a 34-page letter contending
that the religion clauses of the First Amendment do not apply to the states and asking the
judge to dismiss the case "for lack of a federal question."
The Federal District Court's Injunction. On October 29, 1997, the federal
district court issued an injunction to implement its ruling.12 The injunction barred state
officials and school officials of DeKalb County from enforcing the statute and from
permitting "school organized or officially sanctioned religious activity in the classrooms
of DeKalb County schools ...." With respect to the latter, the injunction specifically
prohibited school officials:
!from directing or permitting prayers and devotional messages at public
school graduation exercises (other than a brief personal religious
expression by a speaker);
!from organizing or sponsoring or advertising baccalaureate services,
encouraging student attendance at such services, and from conditioning
participation in commencement exercises on attendance at such services;
!from using the public-address system, or allowing it to be used, for
religious addresses (other than announcements of meetings of non-
curricular student religious clubs);
!from having religious devotionals or other presentations or activities of a
religious nature at school-sponsored or school-initiated assemblies and
events, including sporting events;
!from distributing, or allowing non-school persons to distribute, Gideon
Bibles or other religious tracts on school property during the school day
or on school buses; and
10 The suit initially included a claim against the Talladega County public schools, but that complaint
was resolved through a consent decree.
11 Chandler v. James, 958 F.Supp. 1550 (M.D. Ala. 1997).
12 Chandler v. James, 985 F.Supp. 1062 (M.D. Ala. 1997).
!from retaliating against the plaintiffs or other persons known to have
supported the lawsuit or to have opposed school-sponsored religious
The injunction further directed school officials to distribute the injunction to all principals
and PTAs, to publicize it to all teachers and students, and to conduct in-service training
sessions for all faculty and administrators on the legal standards governing religion in the
public schools. The injunction further provided for the appointment of a monitor to ensure
compliance with the injunction. Finally, the injunction set forth a number of ways in which
religious expression would be constitutional in the schools. The court said:
!religious texts can be used in classrooms "to the extent that material so
used is presented in an objective and academic manner";
!students can express their religious beliefs in homework and other school
assignments "as academically appropriate";
!students can wear religious symbols and clothing bearing religious
messages on the same basis as non-religious expressive symbols and
!students can meet for religious purposes during non-curricular time under
the Equal Access Act; and
!students can distribute religious materials to classmates during
noninstructional time on the same basis as non-religious materials can be
On November 4, 1997, Governor James issued a statement condemning the injunction
as a ruling that "cuts at the heart of all that is good in America and brings shame on our
nation." He said he would "resist Judge DeMent's order by every legal and political means
with every ounce of strength I possess."
Subsequent Rulings by the District Court. In subsequent opinions the district
court held the implementation of the statute in the Dekalb County schools to be
unconstitutional and elaborated on the reasons it deemed a sweeping injunction to be
necessary. In a November 12, 1997, opinion13 the court detailed a history of
noncompliance by DeKalb County with previous judicial rulings and voluntary agreements
concerning religious activities in the public schools. The court found that school-
sponsored religious activity in violation of the First Amendment and previous court rulings
was "pervasive and recurrent" in the County's schools. The evidence showed, it said, that
teacher-led prayer and devotional exercises commonly occurred in the classrooms in
violation of Engel v. Vitale14 and Abington School District v. Schempp15; that clergy- and
student-led prayer frequently occurred at graduation exercises in violation of Lee v.
Weisman16; and that prayer over the public address systems often occurred at sports
events in violation of the 11th Circuit decision in Jager v. Douglas County School
District.17 Moreover, the court noted that the County Board of Education had specifically
adopted the position that prayer and devotionals over the intercom, classroom prayer,
prayer at high school graduations, and prayer at student assemblies were authorized by the
13 Chandler v. James, 985 F.Supp. 1068 (M.D. Ala. 1997).
14 370 U.S. 421 (1962).
15 374 U.S. 203 (1963).
16 505 U.S. 577 (1992).
17 862 F.2d 824 (1989), cert. den., 490 U.S. 1090 (1989).
1993 Alabama statute and that the Board had continued to encourage such practices even
after entering into a voluntary agreement with the plaintiffs to cease the challenged
conduct during the pendency of the suit. The court further found that the County had
continued to engage in such activities after the court's March 12, 1997, ruling holding the
Alabama statute unconstitutional and that school officials had failed to take action to stop
harassment based on religion against a plaintiff's son. All of that, the court stated,
confirmed "the depth of resistance toward ceasing unconstitutional practices on the part
of the DeKalb County School Board" and showed that "unconstitutional conduct will not
be willingly stopped by elected public officials." Thus, it asserted, an injunction was
necessary, including the provisions for a monitor and for in-service training; "simple
declaratory relief would, in DeKalb County," it said, "be no relief at all."
In another opinion released the same day, the court vacated part of an earlier order
denying as moot all pending motions and granted the plaintiffs' motion for partial summary
judgment on the constitutionality of the practices detailed in the paragraph above.18
Finally, on December 17, 1997, the district court denied most of the defendants'
motion for a partial stay of the injunction.19
Governor James’ Appeals. With the Alabama Attorney General disassociating
himself from the action, Governor James on May 1, 1998, filed a petition in the U.S.
Supreme Court asking for a writ of mandamus directing the district court to dismiss the
case for lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction and to vacate its injunction. The petition
contended that the courts have usurped power unconstitutionally and that the religion
clauses of the First Amendment have no application to the states. On June 22 the Court
rejected the petition.20 The Governor made the same contention regarding the non-
applicability of the establishment clause to the states in an appeal to the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit . On July 13, 1999, a three-judge panel of the appellate
court upheld the district court’s ruling in that regard, stating “the states are bound by the
Appeal by the Alabama Attorney General. On a separate appeal filed by the
Alabama Attorney General, however, the Eleventh Circuit did overturn one aspect of the
district court’s ruling and injunction. In this appeal the state chose not to contest the
district court’s ruling that the statute was unconstitutional, and it accepted most of the
injunction issued by the district court. But the state did argue that the injunction was
overbroad in prohibiting the school system from “permitting” most student-initiated vocal
prayer or other devotional speech in its schools and in appointing a monitor to oversee
compliance with the injunction. The appellate court agreed with the first contention but
disagreed with the second.
Private religious speech, the court said, is “fully protected by both the Free Exercise
and Free Speech Clauses of the Constitution.” “Only when the speech is commanded by
18 Chandler v. James, 985 F.Supp. 1094 (M.D. Ala. 1997) (plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment
19 Chandler v. James, 998 F.Supp. 1255 (M.D. Ala. 1997) (defendants' motion for partial stay of the
20 In re Fob James, Jr., 524 U.S. 936 (1998) (denying petition for a writ of mandamus).
21 Chandler v. James, 180 F.3d 1254 (11th Cir. 1999).
the State does it unconstitutionally coerce,” it stated (although it went on to hold that
“proselytizing speech is inherently coercive and the Constitution prohibits it from the
government’s pulpit”). So long as the state does not participate in or actively encourage
or endorse the speech, the court averred, genuinely student-initiated religious expression
must be permitted, subject only to the same time, place, and manner restrictions applicable
to other student speech. On the second issue of the appointment of a monitor, however,
the appellate court affirmed the district court. Given the school system’s history of
unconstitutional activity with respect to religion, it held, the district court’s appointment
of a monitor “was not an abuse of discretion.” Because of its first holding, the court
vacated the injunction and remanded the case for appropriate revision. The Alabama
ACLU then appealed this decision to the Supreme Court
On June 19, 2000, the Supreme Court in Santa Fe Independent School District v.
Doe, 120 S.Ct. 2216 (2000) held unconstitutional a school policy allowing high school
students to vote on whether to have a student deliver an invocation at all home football
games; and on June 26 the Court vacated the appellate court’s decision in Chandler and
remanded the case to it for reconsideration in light of Santa Fe.
On October 19, 2000, the Eleventh Circuit reinstated its previous opinion and
judgment.22 Santa Fe, it said, “reaffirmed that the Establishment Clause of the First
Amendment prohibits a school district from taking affirmative steps to create a vehicle for
prayer to be delivered at a school function.” But, it stated, “only ... State-sponsored,
coercive prayer is forbidden by the Constitution.” Private speech endorsing religion is
protected by both the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, the
court averred. Reiterating that the district court’s injunction had “assumed that virtually
any religious speech in schools is attributable to the State” and that, as a consequence, “it
eliminated any possibility of private student religious speech under any circumstances
other than silently or behind closed doors,” the court said “[t]his the Constitution neither
requires nor permits.” So long as prayer “is genuinely student-initiated and [is] not the
product of any school policy which actively or surreptitiously encourages it,” the appellate
court asserted, prayer can be given “aloud or in front of others, as in the case of an
audience assembled for some other purpose.” The court remanded the case once again to
the district court and directed it to revise its injunction accordingly.
On June 18, 2001, the Supreme Court refused to review this decision. The district
court will now revise its injunction.
22 Chandler v. Siegelman, 230 F.3d 1313 (11th Cir. 2000), cert. den., 69 U.S.L.W. 3702 (June 18,