Lee v. Weisman 1992

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Lee v. Weisman 1992

Petitioners: Robert E. Lee, et al.

Respondent: Daniel Weisman

Petitioners' Claim: That nonsectarian (not associated with a specific religion) prayers at public graduation ceremonies do not violate the First Amendment separation of church and state.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioners: Charles J. Cooper

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Sandra A. Blanding

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, Anthony M. Kennedy (writing for the Court), Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens

Justices Dissenting: William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Byron R. White

Date of Decision: June 24, 1992

Decision: Prayers at public school graduation ceremonies violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Significance: The decision ended an American tradition that dates back to 1868.

When American colonists left England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some were escaping the Church of England. The Church of England was an official church supported by the British government. The British government required its citizens to worship in the Church of England and to say approved prayers from its Book of Common Prayers. If people followed other religions or said other prayers, they violated criminal laws and were punished.

America's founders did not want the government to have religious power. They wanted every American to be free to choose his or her own religion. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights protects this freedom. (The Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791, contains the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.) The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The first part of this amendment, called the Establishment Clause, prevents the government from establishing an official religion or supporting one religion over others. It has been described as creating a "wall of separation between church and state." Although the First Amendment only refers to the federal government, state and local governments must obey it under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Due Process Clause prevents state and local governments from unlawfully taking away a person's right to life, liberty (or freedom) or property.

Religion in public schools

Because state and local governments run public schools, the schools must also obey the Establishment Clause. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that the Establishment Clause prohibits public schools from using official prayers or Bible readings during the school day. In 1992, the Court had to decide the fate of prayers at public school graduation ceremonies.

For many years, middle and high schools principals in Providence, Rhode Island, invited religious leaders to say short prayers at their graduation ceremonies. The school system even had a pamphlet telling religious leaders to make the prayers nonsectarian, meaning general instead of from a specific religion. The prayers were a simple yet meaningful way for graduating students to acknowledge God's role in helping them get through school and prepare for life as an adult.

In 1989, Deborah Weisman was ready to graduate from the Nathan Bishop Middle School of Providence. The school planned to have Rabbi Leslie Gutterman say two short, nonsectarian prayers at the ceremony. Deborah and her father, Daniel Weisman, did not want to hear any prayers at graduation. Four days before the ceremony, Daniel Weisman filed a lawsuit to prevent the school from using any prayers. He argued that prayers at public school ceremonies violated the separation of church and state that was required by the Establishment Clause.

The trial court denied Weisman's request because there was not enough time to consider it, and Rabbi Gutterman prayed at Deborah's ceremony. The court, however, agreed to decide whether Providence schools could use prayers at future graduation ceremonies, such as when Deborah graduated from high school. The court decided against the prayers, and middle school principal, Robert E. Lee, appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. That court also ruled against the prayers, and Lee appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pomp and circumstance

In a close decision, the Supreme Court voted 5–4 against the prayers. Writing for the Court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy admitted that for many Americans, God's role in life should be mentioned at a ceremony as important as graduation. Justice Kennedy said, however, that public schools must obey the First Amendment Establishment Clause.

Justice Kennedy reviewed earlier Supreme Court cases involving prayer in school. In one of the most famous, Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Supreme Court said that the Establishment Clause prohibits schools from using nonsectarian prayers at the beginning of each day, even if they are voluntary. The Court ruled that because the Establishment Clause prevents the government from favoring religion, prayers in school were not acceptable.


T he separation of church and state faces constant opposition from Americans who want religion in public schools. With drugs, guns, and crime becoming bigger school problems, some Americans think religion in school would be a good thing.

This led the U.S. House of Representatives in June 1998 to consider a constitutional amendment called the Religious Freedom Amendment. The amendment would have allowed prayer in public schools, but it failed to receive the votes it needed to pass. Over the following year, America watched in horror as school shootings, such as the one at Columbine High School in Colorado, became regular news items. The House of Representatives responded by passing a bill, or proposed law, in June 1999 to allow states to post the Ten Commandments in public schools.

The House's bill created a lot of controversy. Some Americans argued that the bill was necessary to stop the spread of violence. Some politicians called the Ten Commandments the basis of American civilization. Others said that posting them in public schools would violate the First Amendment separation of church and state. They asked whose Ten Commandments should be posted, the Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish version?

Using the result in Engel, Justice Kennedy said that prayers at public school graduation ceremonies also violated the Establishment Clause. Although students do not have to attend graduation to get their diplomas, the graduation ceremony is one of life's most important events. Students should not be forced to listen to prayers at such ceremonies. It did not matter that Rabbi Gutterman said prayers that were nonsectarian. Justice Kennedy said that the purpose of the Establishment Clause is to prevent the government from favoring any religion, whether specific or nonsectarian.

Death of a tradition

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion, meaning he disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice Scalia said that the Establishment Clause prevents the government from setting up an official religion or forcing people to follow a particular religion. In Justice Scalia's opinion, it does not prevent the government from continuing the American tradition of using nonsectarian prayers at public celebrations.

Justice Scalia described the history of this tradition. The Declaration of Independence mentions God's role in life. Most presidents starting with George Washington have said a short prayer when accepting the nation's highest job. Many of them have declared a national day of Thanksgiving, a day for offering thanks to God for everything we have in America. Justice Scalia also explained that Congress opens each session with a short prayer, and the Supreme Court crier begins each session by saying "God save the United States and this honorable Court."

For Justice Scalia, saying a short, nonsectarian prayer at graduation is part of an American tradition. In fact, looking at the prayers Rabbi Gutterman said at Deborah Weisman's graduation, Scalia said, "they are so characteristically American they could have come from the pen of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln himself."

Suggestions for further reading

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Religion. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1990.

Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Gay, Kathlyn. Church and State: Government and Religion in the United States. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Hirst, Mike. Freedom of Belief. New York: Franklin Watts, 1997.

Kleeberg, Irene Cumming. Separation of Church and State. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, CT: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Lawton, Kim A. "Do Students Have a Prayer?" Christianity Today, June 21, 1993.

Mitchell, Alison and Frank Bruni. "Guns and Schools." New York Times, June 18, 1999.

Seelye, Katharine Q. "House Rejects School Prayer Amendment to Constitution." New York Times, June 5, 1998.

Sherrow, Victoria. Freedom of Worship. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.

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