Lee v. Weisman (1992) - Prayers at School Graduation

Prayer at Graduation
Prayer at Graduation. Rich Legg / Getty Images

How far can a school go when it comes to accommodating the religious beliefs of students and parents? Many schools have traditionally had someone offer prayers at important school events like graduations, but critics argue that such prayers violate the separation of church and state because they mean that the government is endorsing particular religious beliefs.

 

Background Information

Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, RI, traditionally invited clergy to offer prayers at graduation ceremonies.

Deborah Weisman and her father, Daniel, both of whom were Jewish, challenged the policy and filed suit in court, arguing that the school had turned itself into a house of worship after a rabbi’'s benediction. At the disputed graduation, the rabbi thanked for:

...the legacy of America where diversity is celebrated...O God, we are grateful for the learning which we have celebrated on this joyous commencement...we give thanks to you, Lord, for keeping us alive, sustaining us and allowing us to reach this special, happy occasion.

With help from the Bush administration, the school board argued that the prayer was not an endorsement of religion or of any religious doctrines. The Weismans were supported by the ACLU and other groups interested in religious freedom.

Both the district and appellate courts agreed with the Weismans and found the practice of offering prayers unconstitutional. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court where the administration asked it to overturn the three-prong test created in Lemon v. Kurtzman.

 

Court Decision

Arguments were made on November 6th, 1991. On June 24th 1992, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that prayers during school graduation violate the Establishment Clause.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy found that officially sanctioned prayers in public schools were so clearly a violation that the case could be decided without relying upon the Court'’s earlier church/separation precedents, thus avoiding questions about the Lemon Test entirely.

According to Kennedy, the government’'s involvement in religious exercises at graduation is ‘pervasive’ and unavoidable. The state creates both public and peer pressure on students to rise for and remain silent during prayers. State officials not only determine that an invocation and benediction should be given, but also select the religious participant and provide guidelines for the content of the nonsectarian prayers.

The Court viewed this extensive state participation as coercive in the elementary and secondary school settings. The state “in effect required participation in a religious exercise,” since the option of not attending “one of life’'s most significant occasions” was no real choice. “At a minimum,” the Court concluded, the Establishment Clause “guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.”

What to most believers may seem nothing more than a reasonable request that the nonbeliever respect their religious practices, in a school context may appear to the nonbeliever or dissenter to be an attempt to employ the machinery of the State to enforce a religious orthodoxy.

Although a person could stand for the prayer merely as a sign of respect for others, such an action could justifiably be interpreted as accepting the message.

The control held by teachers and principals over the students’ actions forces those graduating to submit to the standards of behavior. This is sometimes referred to as the “Coercion Test.” Graduation prayers fail this test because they put impermissible pressure on students to participate in, or at least show respect for, the prayer.

In a dictum, Justice Kennedy wrote about the importance of the separating church and state:

The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses mean that religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State. The design of the Constitution is that preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere, which itself is promised freedom to pursue that mission. [...] A state-created orthodoxy puts at grave risk that freedom of belief and conscience which are the sole assurance that religious faith is real, not imposed.

In a sarcastic and scathing dissent, Justice Scalia said that prayer is a common and accepted practice of bringing people together and the government should be allowed to promote it. The fact that prayers can cause division for those who disagree with or are even offended by the content simply wasn't relevant, as far as he was concerned. He also didn't bother to explain how sectarian prayers from one religion could unify people of many different religions, never mind people with no religion at all.

 

Significance

This decision failed to reverse the standards established by the Court in Lemon. Instead, this ruling extended the prohibition of school prayer to graduation ceremonies and refused to accept the idea that a student would not be harmed by standing during the prayer without sharing the message contained in the prayer.