Reading Time: 4 minutes

A decision to name a federal courthouse after Joseph Woodrow Hatchett, the Florida Supreme Court’s first Black justice, hit a snag last week after Republicans realized the same judge had once ruled against Christian prayers at public school graduation ceremonies. As if to underscore their opposition to that 1999 decision, 10 Republicans who voted against the bill were co-sponsors of that very same bill.

They trashed their own bill because they feared they’d be seen as soft on Christian nationalism.

Who was Judge Joseph Woodrow Hatchett?

H.R. 4771 was introduced last October by Rep. Al Lawson, Jr., a Florida Democrat. The bill would “designate the Federal Building and United States Courthouse located at 111 North Adams Street in Tallahassee, Florida, as the ‘Joseph Woodrow Hatchett United States Courthouse and Federal Building.'”

It wasn’t a controversial move at all. Hatchett was the state’s first Black Supreme Court justice and the first Black federal circuit court judge in the Deep South, having been nominated by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Hatchett died a year ago at age 88. Perhaps the most damning story in his obituary is that, due to Jim Crow laws in place in 1959, Hatchett had to take the Florida Bar Exam in a hotel where Black people were not permitted to stay.

That’s why naming a courthouse after him should have been a mere formality. Even Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott supported the proposal and got their bill through the Senate through unanimous consent in December. The House just needed two-thirds of the chamber to approve the proposal and it would’ve been a done deal.

Last week, fewer than 60% voted to fast-track the bill. Virtually every Democrat supported it. But the vast majority of Republicans voted against it, most of them chiming in just moments before roll call ended. The bill isn’t dead, but it’ll need to overcome more hurdles now.

So what happened to change their minds?

Judge Hatchett’s 1999 school prayer ruling

It appears the tide turned against Hatchett courtesy of Georgia Republican Rep. Andrew Clyde, who allegedly began circulating a 1999 opinion authored by Hatchett against Christian prayers in school.

Here’s the backstory: For years, the Duval County Public School District allowed chaplains to lead prayers during graduation ceremonies. In 1992, the Supreme Court, in Lee v. Weisman, specifically said those kinds of school-sponsored prayers were unconstitutional. Obviously, that ruling also applied to Duval County.

School officials, however, tried to create a workaround. In 1993, the district issued a memorandum basically saying that graduating seniors could vote for someone to deliver opening and/or closing remarks at graduation… and if that student happened to deliver a Christian prayer with their time (wink wink), it would be fine since the district had nothing to do with it.

That year, 10 of the 17 high schools in the district ended up having prayer at graduation.

So even though the Supreme Court said school-sponsored prayers at graduation were illegal, this district was indirectly continuing school-sponsored prayers at graduation.

No wonder there was a lawsuit that year. But because of legal technicalities, the initial lawsuit didn’t go anywhere, and it wasn’t until 1998 that another challenge got anywhere. Students argued that the district’s policy was still unconstitutional, and the case eventually reached the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals… and Judge Hatchett.

In a 2-1 decision authored by Hatchett, the district’s workaround was deemed unconstitutional.

Our review of Lee and cases from other circuits leads us to the conclusion that the delegation of the decision regarding a “prayer” or “message” to the vote of graduating students does not erase the imprint of the state from graduation prayer.

If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like activist judges, wants judges who respect precedent, and thinks religion is best left to families instead of school officials, then that’s the right call. But if you’re a Republican who worries that supporting a judge who once ruled against shoving Christian prayers into public schools might make you vulnerable to an increasingly extremist voter base, then who cares about judicial philosophy, am I right?

Andrew Clyde, the man who began pushing this smear against Hatchett, is also one of the only members to oppose the recent Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, spread lies about Ketanji Brown Jackson, and called the January 6 insurrection attempt a “normal tourist visit.” No one in their right mind should be listening to anything this guy says.

Naturally, Republicans are listening to everything this guy says,

The backlash to Judge Hatchett’s ruling

Frank Cerabino of the Palm Beach Post explained what happened after that ruling began circulating among House Republicans:

In the end, 147 Republicans settled on “No” votes, sinking the needed two-thirds majority for the building naming. The “No” votes included 10 Florida Republicans who were co-signers of the bill. 

They are Brian Mast, Matt Gaetz, Greg Steube, John Rutherford, Gus Bilirakis, Vern Buchanan, Kat Cammack, Neal Dunn, Scott Franklin and Byron Donalds.

Donalds has the added dubious distinction of being one of two Black Republicans in the U.S. House. 

Just an entire party full of the most spineless people in the country. Do you know how shitty a politician you need to be to make Marco Rubio and Rick Scott look like voices of reason?!

This bill will pass. It won’t happen immediately, but it will almost certainly happen. When that day comes, remember that most Republicans were too scared to vote yes on a gimme bill because they feared a correct decision by a historic judge would hurt their re-election chances.

Avatar photo

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.