Lee v. Weisman
Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

I.  The facts

In 1989 in Providence Principal Robert E. Lee invited a Rabbi to deliver prayers at the 8th grade "promotional exercises" at the public school, Nathan Bishop Middle School.  The Rabbi accepted, and was given a pamphlet by Lee entitled "Guidelines for Civic Ocassions," as customary for Providence school officials inviting clergy to ceremonies.  Student participation in the promotional exercise was voluntary.

One of the graduating students was Deborah Weisman, 14.  Her father, Daniel Weisman, unsuccessfully objected to prayers at the promotional exercises.  Deborah and her family attended the ceremony at Nathan Bishop Middle School and prayer was recited.  Weisman sued Lee, on the grounds that benedictions at public school graduations violated the Establishment Clasue of the First Amendment.  The Court of Appeals ruled in Weisman's favor.  Deborah now attends Classical High School in Providence, and it is likely that a benediction will be conducted at her high school graduation. 

II.  Issue and holding

Does prayer at a public school ceremony violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment? Yes.

III.  Reasoning (Kennedy)

a.  Precedent- Kennedy frames his argument by appealing to precedent.    First he clarifies that while technically voluntary, the 8th grade graduation was in a "fair and real sense obligatory."  He cites Wallace and Lynch to illustrate that compelling prayer in public school is unconstitutional.  He rejects the petitioners request to reconsider the "Lemon test." Everson is confrimed; at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that the state may not coerce religious participation under the Establishment Clause.

b.  Consequential- Kennedy makes a pragmatic appeal to the potential divisiveness over the choice of one particular religion by t he public school principal.  Also, he states that centering a public high school activity on an "overt religious exercise" is a form of subtle coercion because no "real alternative" would allow Deborah to avoid participation or appearance thereof.  High school students are different from adults.  They are also particularly suceptible to peer pressure.  Kennedy states that by providing the Rabbi with the "guidelines for Civic Occasions" Lee was essentially composing prayers for the pulic school to carry out.  He backs up his argument with precedent from Engel.   The Justice notes that prayer could be led privately for the community, but not by the public school or any other arm of the government.

c.  History/Original Intent- Kennedy cites Madison and claims that the original meaning of the First Amendment was that neither religion nor irreligion be supported.

d.  Ethos- The heritage of the United States supports the clear separation of church and state. 

IV.  Concurring opinions

a.  Blackmun (joined by Stevens and O'Connor)- Blackmun agrees with Kennedy .  He says that it is not enough that the government restrain from religious coercion.  The government also cannot engage in religious practices. 

b.  Souter (joined by Stevens and O'Connor)- Souter further examines the Lemon test. 

V.  Dissenting Opinons (Scalia, joined by Rehnquist, White, and Thomas)

a.  Historical/Ethos- Rhenquist makes a strong appeal to the historical and cultural value of prayer at ceremonies in the United States.  He says that event he founders gave speeches with prayer.  Like Rehnquist in Wallace and Stewart in Engel, Scalia makes an argument for non-preferentialism grounded on historical practice.

b.  Consequential- on the contrary, to Weisman's claims, he says that the rights of people who want to pray would be violated by not allowing free Exercise and prayer at the graduation.

VI. Significance

Prayer at a public school graduation is a violation of the Establishment clause of the 14th Amendment.  Reaffirmed Engle.
.

Labels
  • No labels