May 2022 Church & State Magazine

Plan To Honor Black Fla. Judge Scuttled Over 1999 School Prayer Ruling

  Plan To Honor Black Fla. Judge Scuttled Over 1999 School Prayer Ruling

A proposal in Congress to honor Joseph W. Hatchett, the first Black man to serve on the Florida Supreme Court, by naming a federal courthouse in Tallahassee after him collapsed after a far-right Georgia congressman complained about a 1999 school prayer ruling the judge wrote.

The March vote was expected to be routine. The plan to honor Hatchett, a civil rights trailblazer who later served on two federal courts, had the support of Florida’s two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, leading to a unanimous vote in favor of the measure by the full Senate.

But when sent on to the House of Representatives, the measure failed after U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), a freshman lawmaker, began circulating a 1999 news story about Hatchett’s ruling in Adler v. Duval County School Board.

At the time, Duval County, Fla., schools had a policy allowing students to give a two-minute “message” during graduation ceremonies. Not surprisingly, the “messages” just about always turned out to be prayers.

Hatchett, who at the time was serving on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, had no problem seeing through this ruse. The school district’s policy, he wrote, “coerces objecting students to participate in prayer.”

The ruling in the case was in line with Lee v. Weisman, a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1992 that struck down coercive, school-sponsored prayer during graduation ceremonies, but that didn’t matter to Clyde.

“He voted against student-led school prayer in Duval County in 1999,” Clyde told The New York Times. “I don’t agree with that. That’s it. I just let the Republicans know that information on the House floor. I have no idea if they knew that or not.”

Several Florida Republicans told The Times they initially supported naming the courthouse after Hatchett but changed their minds after learning about the school prayer ruling.

The vote, which took place under a fast-track procedure that required two-thirds support, failed, 237-187.

Hatchett was widely respected. One award honored “his many years of extraordinary contributions to Florida’s Legal System … and his lifelong devotion to the improvement of the lives of others.”


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