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Lee v. Weisman

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Significance: The Supreme Court declared that public schools could not conduct prayer exercises at graduation ceremonies.


Graduation ceremonies at a high school in Providence, Rhode Island, were voluntary. When inviting local clergy to offer nonsectarian invocations and benedictions, the principal would give them guidelines suggesting the use of “inclusiveness and sensitivity.” The principal took care to invite a diversity of local clergy Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and others if available. Daniel Weisman, the father of two students, asked for a court order prohibiting the practice. In response, a federal appellate court ruled that the ceremony constituted an “advancement of religion” without a secular purpose, which was contrary to Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). When the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, the administration of President George Bush submitted a brief asking the Court to overturn the Lemon precedent. By a 5-4 vote, the Court upheld the lower court's judgment. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy emphasized the element of government coercion to participate in the ceremony, with social pressures on students to attend, to stand, and to maintain respectful silence. In presenting clergy with guidelines for the prayers, moreover, the principal “directed and controlled the content of the prayer.” Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent endorsed Kennedy's standard of coercion but found no coercion in this instance. The Weisman opinion did not limit the extent to which speakers at school events might discuss religious themes, and it did not address the question of whether students might organize prayer ceremonies without the involvement of public officials.