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Case Summary for Lee v. Weisman
Date Decided: June 24, 1992
Issue: Freedom of Religion -- Whether a public school that includes prayers as part of a graduation ceremony violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Vote: Yes, 5-4
Facts: School principals in the Providence, Rhode Island, public school system routinely invited clergy members to offer short and nonsectarian invocation and benediction prayers as part of the schools' graduation ceremonies. The father of one of the students sought an injunction barring the school system from continuing this practice. The district court agreed with the father that the prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Legal Principles at Issue: The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, . . .") has been interpreted as a guarantee that the government may not (1) coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or (2) establish a state religion or faith. Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984). One test frequently used by the Court to evaluate whether a governmental practice or regulation violates the Establishment Clause was set forth in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971): whether the practice or regulation lacks a clearly secular purpose, whether it has the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and whether it excessively entangles the government with religion.
Legal Basis for Decision: The Court held that the inclusion of prayers at a public school graduation ceremony effectively coerced students to participate in religious exercise and resulted in governmental endorsement of religion. The Court noted on several occasions that attendance at the ceremonies, while voluntary in theory, was required in the sense that students otherwise would forfeit the opportunity to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime event. The dissent argued that a historical analysis required the opposite holding, as prayers have been used at public ceremonies since the founding of the nation.
This Case is Important Because: Thousands of public high schools across the country have used (and probably still continue to use) prayer at graduation ceremonies. The case demonstrated once again that the Court has not reached a firm consensus concerning the evaluation of Establishment Clause cases.
Quotable: "One timeless lesson is that if citizens are subjected to state-sponsored religious exercises, the State disavows its own duty to guard and respect that sphere of inviolable conscience and belief which is the mark of a free people. To compromise that principle today would be to deny our own tradition and forfeit our standing to urge others to secure the protections of that tradition for themselves."
Writing for the Majority: Justice Kennedy
Voting with the Majority: Justices Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, and Souter (Justices Blackmun, Stevens, and O'Connor, concurring) (Justices Souter, Stevens, and O'Connor, concurring)
Writing for the Dissent: Justice Scalia
Voting with the Dissent: Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justices White and Thomas
Not Voting: N/A
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