In the ’90s, scene of school shooting was battleground for school prayer

If history is any guide — and it is — there will shortly be a crescendo of complaints following politicians’ tweets and comments sending thoughts and prayers to Santa Fe High School in Texas, the scene of the latest school slaughter.

Santa Fe isn’t new to being at the center of national attention and it knows a lot about prayers. It’s where school prayer at high school football games met its end.

Santa Fe, a largely Baptist town near Galveston, was ground zero in the national school prayer fight when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the practice nationwide by ruling against the high school’s long tradition.

That capped a five-year struggle by two mothers who had sued the district for its embracing of religion, distributing Bibles in school and — Texas Monthly reported — turning graduation ceremonies into worship services.

In April 1995 the ACLU filed Jane Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District, a wide-ranging civil rights lawsuit that sought to “remind [the school district] of the value of the separation of church and state and the need to prevent the govern­ment from endorsing one religion over an­other.”

It cited eleven infractions—from Bible distribution, to a baccalaureate ser­vice led by a Baptist minister, to prayer before football games—that had “the pri­mary effect of advancing, sponsoring, pro­moting, endorsing and/or encouraging re­ligion and foster[ing] excessive entangle­ment by Santa Fe Independent School District with religion.”

Identified only as Jane Does, the plaintiffs were described in court filings as two mothers—one Catholic, one Mormon—who each had two children attending Santa Fe schools.

Secrets are hard to keep in Santa Fe, and as those few telling details circulated around town, so did speculation about who the Does might be. Debbie Mason’s daughter Jennifer—then an honor student and a student columnist for the Texas City Sun—remembered adults in her church exhorting her peers to find out who the Doe children were so they could be saved.

(A youth minister later told his young parishioners that their persistent attempts to discover the Does’ identities were wrong.) At school, students began viewing their Catholic and Mormon peers with sus­picion, harassing and ridiculing those who seemed likely suspects, much in the same way they had vilified the children who had not taken Bibles.

Around town, questions about religious affiliations became the norm, as did requests to sign petitions supporting the school district. “The peti­tions were an attempt to ferret out the identities of my clients,” said Galveston attorney Anthony Griffin, who represents the Does. “Anyone who didn’t sign them went down on the town’s McCarthy list.”

Even school district employees were in­volved. So severe was the problem that the presiding judge in the case, U.S. district court judge Sam Kent, threatened them with “the harshest possible contempt sanctions” and “criminal liability” if they did not cease their investigations.

The football prayer over the loudspeaker — a prayer read by a student elected as student chaplain — wasn’t even the centerpiece of the original complaint, but in a 6-to-3 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2000, it had become the primary issue. The debate on the court 18 years ago, very much mirrors the 2018 discussions about the role of religion in public institutions.

“Even if we regard every high school student’s decision to attend a home football game as purely voluntary, we are nevertheless persuaded that the delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. “The constitutional command will not permit the District ‘to exact religious conformity from a student as the price” of joining her classmates at a varsity football game.'”

In his dissent, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said the majority opinion ”bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life.” He said ”under the Court’s logic, a public school that sponsors the singing of the national anthem before football games violates the Establishment Clause” because the concluding verse contains the phrase ”And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.”’

In a brief to the court before he became president of the United States, then Texas Gov. George W. Bush said a football prayer “promotes good sportsmanship and honest and fair play in an otherwise rough and dangerous sport.”