Lee v. Weisman
|Lee v. Weisman|
|Argued November 6, 1991|
Decided June 24, 1992
|Full case name||Robert E. Lee, Individually and as Principal of Nathan Bishop Middle School, et al., Petitioners v. Daniel Weisman etc.|
505 U.S. 577 (more)|
112 S. Ct. 2649; 120 L. Ed. 2d 467; 1990 U.S. LEXIS 4364; 60 U.S.L.W. 4723; 92 Cal. Daily Op. Service 5448; 92 Daily Journal DAR 8669
|Prior history||Respondents' motion for temporary restraining order to prevent invocation from being delivered denied, District Court for the District of Rhode Island (1990); Appealed after graduation ceremony, decision reversed, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (1990)|
|Including a clergy-led prayer within the events of a public high school graduation violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.|
</td></tr><tr><th colspan="2" style="text-align:center;background-color: #99c0ff; white-space:nowrap">Case opinions</th></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Majority</th><td>
Kennedy, joined by Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, Souter</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Concurrence</th><td> Blackmun, joined by Stevens, O'Connor</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Concurrence</th><td> Souter, joined by Stevens, O'Connor</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Dissent</th><td> Scalia, joined by Rehnquist, White, Thomas</td></tr><tr><th colspan="2" style="text-align:center;background-color: #99c0ff; white-space:nowrap">Laws applied</th></tr><tr><td colspan="2" style="text-align:center"> U.S. Const. amend. I</td></tr></table>
Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), was a United States Supreme Court decision regarding school prayer. It was the first major school prayer case decided by the Rehnquist Court. It ruled that schools may not sponsor clerics to conduct even non-denominational prayer. The Court followed a broad interpretation of the Establishment Clause that had been standard for decades at the nation's highest court, a reaffirmation of the principles of such landmark cases as Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) and Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).
When Robert E. Lee, the principal of Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island, invited a Jewish rabbi to deliver a prayer at the 1989 graduation ceremony, the parents of student Deborah Weisman requested a temporary injunction seeking to bar the rabbi from speaking. When the Rhode Island district court denied the Weismans' motion, the family did attend the graduation ceremony, and the rabbi did deliver the benediction. After the graduation, the Weismans continued their litigation, and won a victory at the First Circuit Court of Appeals. The school district appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the prayer was nonsectarian and was doubly voluntary, as Deborah was free not to stand for the prayer and because participation in the ceremony itself was not required. Arguments were heard on November 6, 1991, and many court watchers thought that Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had been critical of the Court's decisions on school prayer, would provide the crucial fifth vote to reverse the lower court's ruling and deal a major blow to the twin separationist pillars of Engel and Abington.
The 5-4 decision was announced on June 24, 1992. It was a somewhat surprising victory for the Weismans, with Justice Kennedy, far from joining the conservative bloc that favored rolling back restrictions on school prayers, writing the majority opinion that preserved previous Supreme Court precedents that sharply limited the role that religion could play in the nation's public schools. The Blackmun papers reveal that, as in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), Kennedy switched his vote during the deliberations, saying that his draft majority opinion upholding the prayer exercise "looked quite wrong." Instead, Kennedy wrote an opinion that, while carefully circumscribed, squarely repudiated the school district's main arguments. He found much wrong with Principal Lee's decision to give the rabbi who was planning to offer the graduation invocation a pamphlet on composing prayers for civic occasions:
Kennedy also noted that the nonsectarian nature of the prayer was no defense, as the Establishment Clause forbade coerced prayers in public schools, not just those representing a specific religious tradition. Addressing the State's contention that attendance at the graduation exercises was voluntary, Kennedy remarked that
Finally, in answering the argument that participation in the prayer was itself voluntary, Kennedy formulated what is now known as the coercion test:
The coercion test is now used, in addition to the Lemon test and Justice O'Connor's "endorsement or disapproval" test, to determine the constitutionality under the Establishment Clause of certain government actions. The test "seeks to determine whether the state has applied coercive pressure on an individual to support or participate in religion."
Justice Blackmun's concurrence stressed that "our decisions have gone beyond prohibiting coercion, however, because the Court has recognized that 'the fullest possible scope of religious liberty,' entails more than freedom from coercion." 505 U.S. 577, 606 (citation omitted). Blackmun emphasized that even if no one was compelled, directly or indirectly, to participate in a state-sponsored religious exercise, the government was still without power to place its imprimatur on any religious activity.
Justice Souter devoted his concurring opinion to a historical analysis rebutting the contention that the government could endorse nonsectarian prayers. He cited the writings of James Madison and pointed to the changing versions of the First Amendment that the First Congress considered as opposed to the version it eventually adopted. Souter, too, took issue with the school district's defense of non-coercive religious exercises, dismissing the position as without precedential authority.
Justice Scalia's dissent argued against the coercion test:
Scalia pointed to several historical examples of calling on divine guidance by American Presidents, including Washington's proclamation of the Thanksgiving holiday in 1789 and the inaugural addresses of both Madison and Thomas Jefferson. He disputed the Court's contention that attendance at high school graduation ceremonies was effectively required as part of social norms, and also the conclusion that students were subtly coerced to stand for the rabbi's invocation. In Scalia's view, only official penalties for refusing to support or adhere to a particular religion created an Establishment Clause violation.
A broad reading of the Establishment Clause won out, but it seems to have its greatest current application in a public school context. The Court has ruled against the separationist position in several key funding cases since Lee, including the school voucher case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002). However, a majority of the Court continues to maintain a strict ban on most forms of state-sponsored religious exercises in schools themselves, as evidenced by the 6-3 ruling in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000), which struck down student-led prayers before public school football games.