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Lee v. Weisman

Further Readings

Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), represented a major political blow for proponents of prayer in the public schools. The decision came as something of a surprise to many legal and political analysts, but was in keeping with precedents established by the Court in similar cases. In ENGEL V. VITALE (1962), the Court barred prayer in the public schools as an unhealthy union of church and state. This position was affirmed and expanded in ABINGTON SCHOOL DISTRICT V. SCHEMPP (1963), in which the Court ruled that school-sponsored devotional activities and Bible readings were unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause. The Court has continued to adhere to a rigorous interpretation of the Establishment Clause in cases including Board of Education of Kiryas Joel v. Grumet (1994), where the Court found that the creation of a special school district to accommodate the needs of a community comprising entirely of Hasidic Jews was unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause. Significantly, the Court also refused a direct request from the administration of President GEORGE H. W. BUSH to review the test for violation of the Establishment Clause developed in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971).

Amid what many people saw as increasing social disorder and lawlessness in the 1980s, a strong political movement emerged favoring a more prominent role for religion within the public schools of the United States. This movement particularly emphasized the supposed benefits of prayer in the public schools, believing that a renewed emphasis on religious teachings in a school setting would lessen the perceived waywardness of youth. By the same token, many people feared that the introduction of religion into the public schools would constitute a dangerous abridgement of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which many interpret as calling for the complete separation of church and state. Throughout the decade of the 1980s, conservative presidents RONALD REAGAN and George H. W. Bush appointed new members to the Supreme Court, including SANDRA DAY O'CONNNOR, ANTONIN SCALIA, DAVID H. SOUTER, and CLARENCE THOMAS, who many hoped would vote to reverse earlier Court rulings barring the introduction of religious teachings or practices into the public schools. A challenge to legal precedent was eagerly awaited by proponents of school prayer.

For many years it was customary for the principals of middle and high schools in Providence, Rhode Island, to invite religious leaders to give nonsectarian prayers as invocations and benedictions at school-sponsored graduation ceremonies. The school system had, in fact, prepared guidelines for clergy delivering such prayers, to insure that the prayers would not include any direct references to specific deities or saints. Despite this effort of the schools to make the prayers innocuous and all-inclusive, a middle school student, Deborah Weisman, and her father, Daniel, objected to the use of any prayer at her June 29, 1989, graduation ceremony. Four days prior to the ceremony, the Weismans sought a temporary restraining order from the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island to prohibit the use of prayer at Deborah's graduation. This motion was denied due to a lack of time to fully consider the case, and the graduation ceremony was conducted as planned. Daniel Weisman then filed for a permanent injunction against the use of prayers at future graduation ceremonies from the district court.

The district court held that the use of prayer at public school graduation ceremonies did constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause. To reach its verdict, the district court applied the three-pronged test for establishing infringement of the Establishment Clause devised in Lemon v. Kurtzman. The so-called Lemon Test directed that any state-sponsored program, in order to adhere to the Establishment Clause, must: reflect a clearly secular purpose; have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and avoid excessive government entanglement with religion. The district court did not comment on the first or third stipulations of the Lemon Test, but noted that the use of prayer at official public school functions violated the second clause, in that by having prayer of any kind at a state function, the idea of religion in general was advanced. Robert E. Lee, principal of the Nathan Bishop Middle School of Providence, Rhode Island, and representing the petitioners, appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The court of appeals upheld the ruling of the district court, and expanded its scope by stating that the practice of using prayer at official school functions in fact violated all three prongs of the Lemon Test. The petitioners then appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments on November 6, 1991.

In its argument before the Supreme Court, the petitioners maintained that prayer represents an appropriate and effective means to enable students and parents to seek spiritual guidance at important events such as school graduations. The Court was unmoved by either this logic or the prevailing conservative political climate, however, and upheld the ruling of the appeals court by a 5–4 vote. Justice ANTHONY M. KENNEDY, writing for the majority, made a distinction between this case and Marsh v. Chambers, when the Court had ruled that the use of a prayer to open a state legislature's session did not constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause. Kennedy maintained that the opening of a legislature, comprising entirely adults who are there of their own free will cannot be realistically compared to a school graduation, where numerous peer, parental, and social pressures for attendants exist. The Court also noted that school children are particularly susceptible to COERCION through the schools, and as such the behavior of schools with regard to the Establishment Clause must be able to withstand especially careful scrutiny. Justices Blackmun, O'Connor, and John Paul Stevens concurred, adding that the Lemon Test was applicable and represented a straightforward means of assessing compliance with the Establishment Clause. Justices O'Connor, Souter, and JOHN PAUL STEVENS. also wrote separately to maintain that the Establishment Clause should not only be construed as prohibiting the government from favoring one religion over another, but also as barring government support for religion as opposed to nonreligion. Justices WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST, Clarence Thomas, and BYRON R. WHITE, in dissenting from the majority, noted the pervasive tradition of using prayers as invocations and benedictions at a number of nonreligious events, viewing such prayers as being essentially nonreligious in intent when used in this manner.



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