The opinion of the court was delivered by: THOMAS A. HIGGINS
The Court has before it the defendant's renewed motion (filed November 5, 1993; Docket Entry No. 39) to dismiss and the plaintiff's response (filed December 3, 1993; Docket Entry No. 44). For the reasons set forth below, the defendant's motion shall be denied, and this action shall be remanded to the Chancery Court of Sumner County, Tennessee.
This is a school-prayer case with an unusual twist. A high school principal brings the action against the American Civil Liberties Union in response to the ACLU's threat to pursue litigation concerning prayers at high school graduation ceremonies.
In early May, 1993, the ACLU sent a letter to Tennessee public school officials. The letter stated, in part, that the Supreme Court's recent decision in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. , 112 S. Ct. 2649, 120 L. Ed. 2d 467 (1992), precluded all speakers, including students, from leading prayers at graduation ceremonies. The letter further stated: "Please understand that if your school system does sponsor prayer at its graduation ceremonies and we are contacted by students and their families, we will most likely pursue litigation." Exhibit No. 1 to second amended complaint (filed October 25, 1993; Docket Entry No. 38).
The plaintiff, who is the principal of Westmoreland High School in Westmoreland, Tennessee, was provided a copy of the ACLU letter. Several students later asked him whether they could give a prayer at the upcoming Westmoreland High School graduation ceremony. Fearing a lawsuit by the ACLU, the plaintiff declined to authorize any prayers. However, because he thought it would violate the students' civil rights to forbid prayers, he told the students "that he could not tell them that they could not pray, but that he could not tell them that they could pray." Second amended complaint P 22.
On May 30, 1993, several students stood and recited "The Lord's Prayer" during the Westmoreland High School graduation ceremony. The ACLU did not initiate any legal action in response to the prayer.
The plaintiff filed this action in the Chancery Court of Sumner County, Tennessee, on June 7, 1993. See exhibit No. 1 to notice (filed June 17, 1993; Docket Entry No. 1) of removal. He seeks a declaratory judgment to the effect that the First Amendment does not prohibit student-led prayers at high school graduation ceremonies and that a Tennessee statute authorizing such prayers is constitutional.
The ACLU removed the action here pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b). In the notice of removal, the ACLU asserts that this Court has original jurisdiction because the action arises under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Contemporaneous with its notice of removal, the ACLU also filed a motion (filed July 17, 1993; Docket Entry No. 4) to dismiss.
In this motion, the ACLU states that the action should be dismissed because (1) the complaint is not "justiciable;" (2) there is no actual "case or controversy;" (3) the plaintiff lacks "standing;" and (4) the matters alleged are not "ripe" for a judicial decision.
The federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. They may only resolve those "cases" and "controversies" listed in Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution. Where there is no case or controversy, federal courts lack authority to render a decision, regardless of the subject matter. Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Inc., 454 U.S. 464, 471, 102 S. Ct. 752, 757-58, 70 L. Ed. 2d 700, 708 (1982). The Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201-02, did not expand the jurisdiction of the federal courts, only the remedies they may provide. Skelly Oil Co. v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 339 U.S. 667, 671, 70 S. Ct. 876, 879, 94 L. Ed. 1194, 1199 (1950).
The question of whether a case or controversy exists has given rise to a variety of doctrines. But whether courts speak in terms of "justiciability," "standing," or "ripeness," they all are asking the same question: does a case or controversy exists? 13 Wright, Miller & Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure, § 3529 n. 5 (2d ed. 1984). A mere disagreement about the law is not enough, even if the parties are passionate in their positions. Valley Forge Christian College, 454 U.S. at 486, 102 S. Ct. at 766, 70 L. Ed. 2d at 718. For a dispute to rise to the level of a case or controversy it must be "definite and concrete, touching the legal relations of parties having adverse legal interests" and "admitting of specific relief through a decree of a conclusive character, as distinguished from an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts." Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227, 240-41, 57 S. Ct. 461, 464, 81 L. Ed. 617, 621 (1937).
Here, the ACLU has made a vague threat to "pursue legal action" if it learns that a school system has sponsored prayers at a graduation ceremony. Would the ACLU file a lawsuit? What would the allegations be? Who would the parties be?
The Court can only speculate as to the answers. However, ...