The State of Faith: Religion and Race in the 1985 Alabama Case of Wallace v. Jaffree

Open Access
Mcgehrin, Drew Steven
Area of Honors:
Interdisciplinary in History and Religious Studies
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Anne Carver Rose, Thesis Supervisor
  • On Cho Ng, Honors Advisor
  • Michael James Milligan, Faculty Reader
  • George
  • Wallace
  • Ishmael
  • Jaffree
  • William
  • Rehnquist
  • Religion
  • Race
  • Faith
  • Alabama
  • 1985
This thesis investigates the 1985 Supreme Court decision Wallace v. Jaffree. The case originated in a lawsuit against the State of Alabama by Ishmael Jaffree, an agnostic African American who challenged Governor George Wallace and two Alabama school prayer statutes. The first, enacted in 1981, instructed public schools to allocate time during the school day for a moment of silence for “voluntary prayer.” The second, passed in 1982, instructed teachers to lead their classes in a specific prayer approved by the Alabama State Legislature. Jaffree argued that these laws violated the First Amendment rights of his children, who were students in the Mobile public school system. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court declared the Alabama statutes unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause. The Court rejected Wallace’s states’ rights argument against the incorporation of the First Amendment. In an equally significant dissent, Associate Justice William Rehnquist critiqued the concept of a wall of Church-State separation. My method combines constitutional history and intellectual history. My analysis focuses on religious advocacy, racial tension, and the personalities of the individuals involved. Religion and race were interconnected in the case, not only due to the racial differences of the contending parties, but more subtly through the states’ rights argument. In this case, Wallace applied the classic argument for state sovereignty, which he developed in the context of civil rights, to the issue of public religious observance. Religion, race, and civil authority converge in this case, giving it great historical significance.