Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577; 112 S. Ct. 2649; 120 L. Ed. 2d 467 (1992)

Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577; 112 S. Ct. 2649; 120 L. Ed. 2d 467 (1992)

Facts—A public school principal in Providence, Rhode Island, invited a rabbi to deliver prayers at a middle school graduation exercise. The U.S. District Court, while it did not enjoin the prayers at this graduation, subsequently granted an injunction sought by the parent of a school-age child against such future prayers, arguing that they had the primary effect of advancing religion, prohibited by the second prong of the Lemon Test. The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision that the practice violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Question—Do school officials violate the establishment clause when they invite members of the clergy to give prayers at public school graduations?


ReasonsJ. Kennedy (5–4). Controlling precedents indicate that the action of the school here was unconstitutional. The action of the principal in inviting a member of the clergy to deliver a prayer at a graduation constituted state promotion of religious activity at a ceremony that, although technically not compulsory, was “in a fair and real sense obligatory.” The Constitution protects speech by “ensuring its full expression,” but it protects worship by prohibiting state sponsorship. Here students were psychologically coerced into standing during a prayer that some disapproved apparently because it was thought that the majority favored such an exercise. This exercise was fundamentally different from the practice of allowing a chaplain to begin a state legislative session in prayer, which the Court approved in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), because the psychological pressures were far greater in the context of school graduations.

J. Blackmun’s concurrence sought to demonstrate that this decision was in accord with earlier Supreme Court precedents. He argued that “The mixing of government and religion can be a threat to free government, even if no one is forced to participate.” J. Souter’s concurrence argued that the establishment clause was designed to prohibit governmental practices that favored religion in general and not simply those that preferred one denomination to another. He also argued that it was unnecessary to show that a governmental act relative to religion was coercive to show that it was unconstitutional.

J. Scalia’s dissent accused the majority of ignoring the history both of general public recognitions of religion and of school graduations in particular. He further objected to the Court’s reliance on the doctrine of “psychological coercion.” He did not think that voluntarily standing for a prayer could be interpreted as anything other than respect for the views of others. He further denied that the principal, who had issued a two-page pamphlet to the rabbi describing how to make public prayers inclusive, had in any real way “directed” what the rabbi would say. Scalia argued that there was no real threat of religious coercion absent any threat of “penalty or discipline.” He further expressed his dismay with the Lemon Test, but argued that even it had greater validity than the majority’s “psycho-coercion test.”

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