A 30-year-old court case could have left certain science and history books outlawed in the Mobile County Public School System were it not overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court, but before one of Mobile’s most divisive civil lawsuits got national attention in Washington, D.C., Wallace v. Jaffree had many interesting twists and turns locally.

The roots of the case were planted when Ishmael Jaffree, formerly Frederick Hobbs, found out his 6-year-old son Chioke was participating in teacher-led, Christian prayer with his classmates at Morningside Elementary School in Mobile.

The prayers included popular childhood blessings such as “God is great, God is good,” as well as the Lord’s Prayer, which at the time were recited daily and justified by three Alabama statutes.

As a self-proclaimed agnostic, Jaffree found the practice particularly unsettling. At the same time, he was sure it violated the U.S. Constitution. Jaffree, a Civil Rights attorney, said before filing suit, he made several failed attempts to settle the issue with teachers and administrators in the school system.

According to Jaffree, the teachers gave his children the option to leave the classroom, but he believed that would have done little more than ostracize them. Eventually, he filed suit in federal court here in Mobile with former Judge William Brevard Hand presiding.

Over a three-year period, the case rapidly developed, with parties from all over the country filing briefs in support of or in opposition to Jaffree’s attempt to stop the daily prayer practices.

Though it originally targeted three teachers, three principals and other administrators, the case eventually became a showdown over prayer in public schools between Jaffree and the entire state of Alabama.

The complaint

Although he was raised a Baptist in Cleveland, Ohio, Jaffree said he always questioned what he was taught. That was a quality he and his wife agreed to teach their children, choosing not to force any particular religion or social ideology upon them.

“Because of my philosophy of nonconformity, it was inevitable that I would probably bring a case like this someday,” Jaffree said. “But, I had no idea this case was going to develop the way it did.”

Though Jaffree was and remains a practicing attorney, he wanted to remain the plaintiff in his case against the state. At first, he attempted to contact the American Civil Liberties Union, which declined to get involved. Jaffree said the group later regretted that decision once the case’s notoriety grew.

Moving forward, Jaffree elected to hire local attorney Ronnie Williams — though he admits he remained heavily involved in the composition of the litigation.

“I had reservations about filing this lawsuit initially,” he said. “I didn’t want to generate much attention, and I was concerned about how it would affect me and my children in this hub of super (conservatism).”  

According to Jaffree, there was backlash ranging from verbal threats to rocks thrown at his car. He even had some opposition at home. His two older children, who attended E.R. Dickson and Craighead elementary schools, resented the attention the case inevitably received.

“They were older and got laughed at and talked about by some of their friends, but my youngest child was only 6 years old. He was all excited because the media came and took his picture,” Jaffree said. “This is a religious community, and there was some confusion that I was Muslim or an atheist or both, which is a contradiction.”

Mounting a defense

At the time, Robert Campbell III was the attorney for the Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County — a position he held for 27 years.

According to Campbell, there was more to Jaffree’s original complaint than teacher-led prayer, including requests to “remove Christmas from the school calendar” and “mentions of God from other holiday plays and activities.”

Campbell said the school board voted 3-2 to defend the case, and as he recalls it, the deciding vote came from a Jewish board member.

“As a litigation lawyer, I looked at the case not to support prayer or prevent prayer, but to defend the principals and teachers and to keep the board from having to pay out any money,” he said. “Unfortunately, it had so much more of an impact than a normal case.”

Jaffree’s complaint alleged school prayer — permitted under Alabama statute — was a violation of the First Amendment’s “establishment” clause and the Fourteenth Amendment that applies the clause at the state level.

At the time, the U.S. Supreme Court had already declared prayer in public schools to be unconstitutional for the same reasons in cases like Engel v. Vitale, Abington v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett.

The existing precedents led Jaffree to feel confident in his case, and Campbell to realize he had his work cut out for him. The defense was simple: prove the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution and its authors’ intentions were wrong.

“You can never really tell what the intent of a law is unless you listen to the debate of the people who passed it,” Campbell said. “I wanted see if they intended to ban prayer from the public forum, and Judge Hand let me go with it.”

As a part of the defense, Campbell and his team researched all the congressional debates dealing with prayer from 1787 to 1875 and brought in constitutional scholars from all over the country.

A mountain of evidence was presented to the court from early campaign speeches and legislative debates — the first time there was a record of such historic evidence in any trial related to the separation of the church and state, according to Campbell.

“The idea of ‘the wall’ between church and state was a poorly used metaphor coming from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote James Madison from France,” Campbell said. “They were all fighting over states’ rights with relation to the church. All Congress meant to do was to make sure the federal government wouldn’t choose the religion for everyone.”  

Campbell said the congressional debates he reviewed were all void of anything close to how the separation of church and state is regarded today. He said the Supreme Court’s first rulings on prayer in public schools were essentially an “edict,” as they lacked evidence from district court to back them up.

“The issue was, ‘is prayer unconstitutional?’ And all the debates show it’s not,” Campbell said. “If you don’t like the law, change it another way.”

Judge Hand agreed and ultimately ruled against Jaffree, dismissing his claims with prejudice and defending the public teachers’ actions as constitutional.

“This Court’s independent review of the relevant historical documents and its reading of the scholarly analysis convinces it that the United States Supreme Court has erred in its reading of history,” Hand’s ruling reads. “Perhaps this opinion will be no more than a voice crying in the wilderness and this attempt to right that which this Court is persuaded is a misreading of history will come to nothing more than blowing in the hurricane, but be that as it may, this Court is persuaded as was Hamilton that ‘[e]very breach of the fundamental laws, though dictated by necessity, impairs the sacred reverence which ought to be maintained in the breast of the rulers towards the constitution.’”

In 1982, Judge Hand’s decision marked the first time a district judge had ever ruled against a Supreme Court precedent.

Though his decision would later be overturned by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the appellate decision would be upheld by the Supreme Court, Campbell called Judge Hand’s ruling “the shot heard around the world” and said it only brought more attention to the case.

More parties step in

“During the trial, a lot of really strange wackos came out from everywhere, and not just against prayer either,” Campbell said. “Some were really for prayer. Some thought we ought to have prayer all day long.”

Several groups offered support to both sides of the case. Jaffree said he actually had a lot of written and financial support from Jewish groups. According to Campbell, religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Boone and Pat Robertson took interest in the defense.

One group of nearly 600 individuals, most of whom were members of Mobile’s Cottage Hill Baptist Church, became part of the case after requesting to join as intervenors on behalf of the defendants. Attorney Bob Sherling, who is now a judge in Mobile County’s 13th District, represented those individuals and their concerns.

“We took the position, that if you’re going to take religion out of the school books, you need to take all the religion out of school books,” Sherling said. “Secular humanism is a religion.”

In earlier cases, secular humanism was identified as a religion, and the intervenors claimed this was highlighted in several books using the Mobile County Public School System’s curriculum, all of which they planned to submit as evidence.

“I thought, ‘this just isn’t right,’” Sherling said. “You can’t promote one religion over another, and that is what’s being done.