World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

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.
Citations 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.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Kennedy, joined by Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, Souter
Concurrence Blackmun, joined by Stevens, O'Connor
Concurrence Souter, joined by Stevens, O'Connor
Dissent Scalia, joined by Rehnquist, White, Thomas
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I

Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992),[1] 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).


  • Background 1
  • Decision 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6


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:

Through these means, the principal directed and controlled the content of the prayers. Even if the only sanction for ignoring the instructions were that the rabbi would not be invited back, we think no religious representative who valued his or her continued reputation and effectiveness in the community would incur the State's displeasure in this regard. It is a cornerstone principle of our Establishment Clause jurisprudence that it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government, and that is what the school officials attempted to do. 505 U.S. 577, 588 (citation omitted).

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

To say a teenage student has a real choice not to attend her high school graduation is formalistic in the extreme. True, Deborah could elect not to attend commencement without renouncing her diploma; but we shall not allow the case to turn on this point. Everyone knows that, in our society and in our culture, high school graduation is one of life's most significant occasions. A school rule which excuses attendance is beside the point. Attendance may not be required by official decree, yet it is apparent that a student is not free to absent herself from the graduation exercise in any real sense of the term "voluntary," for absence would require forfeiture of those intangible benefits which have motivated the student through youth and all her high school years. 505 U.S. 577, 595.

Finally, in answering the argument that participation in the prayer was itself voluntary, Kennedy formulated what is now known as the coercion test:

The school district's supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places subtle and indirect public and peer pressure on attending students to stand as a group or maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction. A reasonable dissenter of high school age could believe that standing or remaining silent signified her own participation in, or approval of, the group exercise, rather than her respect for it. And the State may not place the student dissenter in the dilemma of participating or protesting. Since adolescents are often susceptible to peer pressure, especially in matters of social convention, the State may no more use social pressure to enforce orthodoxy than it may use direct means. The embarrassment and intrusion of the religious exercise cannot be refuted by arguing that the prayers are of a de minimis character, since that is an affront to the rabbi and those for whom the prayers have meaning, and since any intrusion was both real and a violation of the objectors' rights. 505 U.S. 577, 505 U.S. 577, Syllabus.
The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion does not supersede the fundamental limitations imposed by the Establishment Clause. It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which "establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so." 505 U.S. 577, 587 (citations omitted and emphasis added).
As we have observed before, there are heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools. Our decisions in [Engel] and [Abington] recognize, among other things, that prayer exercises in public schools carry a particular risk of indirect coercion. The concern may not be limited to the context of schools, but it is most pronounced there. What to most believers may seem nothing more than a reasonable request that the nonbeliever respect their religious practices, in a school context may appear to the nonbeliever or dissenter to be an attempt to employ the machinery of the State to enforce a religious orthodoxy. 505 U.S. 577, 592 (citations omitted).

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."[2]

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:

In holding that the Establishment Clause prohibits invocations and benedictions at public school graduation ceremonies, the Court - with nary a mention that it is doing so - lays waste a tradition that is as old as public school graduation ceremonies themselves, and that is a component of an even more longstanding American tradition of nonsectarian prayer to God at public celebrations generally. As its instrument of destruction, the bulldozer of its social engineering, the Court invents a boundless, and boundlessly manipulable, test of psychological coercion... 505 U.S. 577, 632.

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.

See also


  1. ^ 505 U.S. 577 (Full text of the decision courtesy of
  2. ^ United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (July 23, 2012). "United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit case 10-2922 John Doe v. Elmbrock School District" (PDF). United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. p. 83. Retrieved 23 June 2014. 

Further reading

  • Irons, P. (1999). A People's History of the Supreme Court. New York: Viking.  
  • Paulsen, Michael Stokes (1992). "Lemon is dead". Case Western Reserve Law Review 43: 795.  

External links

  • Text of Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia 
  • Full Text of Volume 505 of the United States Reports at
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.