Lee v. Weisman

Prayer as a long-standing tradition in many public school graduation ceremonies came under the scrutiny of the Supreme Court in Lee v. Weisman (1992). The Court ruled that having the school principal select a clergyman to deliver a prayer at graduation violated the Establishment Clause’s prohibition against state involvement in establishing religion.

Facts of the Case

Apublic middle school in Lee had a practice of selecting clergy to deliver a graduation invocation and benediction graduation. Clergy who were interested in participating in graduation ceremonies had only to contact the middle school principal who was in charge of graduation. The principal in Lee selected a rabbi to deliver the prayers, provided him with a pamphlet containing guidelines for the composition of public prayers at civic ceremonies, and advised him that the prayers should be nonsectarian.

The invocation and benediction delivered by the rabbi had two references to “God” and one to “Lord” (Lee, p. 581). Attendance at the middle school graduation was voluntary. Those attending the graduation at issue in Lee stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and remained standing for the rabbi’s invocation and, at the end of the graduation, stood again for the benediction.

A parent of a middle school student challenged, under the Establishment Clause, the use of prayer at graduation. Although the parent was unsuccessful in securing a preliminary injunction prohibiting the use of the prayers at his daughter’s graduation, the federal trial court in Rhode Island subsequently found the prayers unconstitutional under the second part of the three-part Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) test, which prohibits government interaction with religion that has the impermissible effect of advancing religion. The First Circuit affirmed, also on the basis of Lemon.

The Court’s Ruling

The Supreme Court affirmed in Lee that the practice of prayer at the public school graduation ceremony violated the Establishment Clause. Critical to the Court’s analysis was the involvement of the principal in selecting the person to deliver the prayers, wherein the Court perceived “the potential for divisiveness over the choice of a particular member of the clergy to conduct the ceremony” (Lee, p. 587). Despite what the Court characterized as the “good-faith attempt by the school” (p. 589) to eliminate sectarianism from the prayers, the Court was of the opinion that “our precedents do not permit school officials to assist in composing prayers as an incident to a formal exercise for their students” (p. 590).

In reaching its holding, the Court took issue with the school’s position that attendance at graduation was voluntary, with the observation that graduation is a rite of passage in which those closest to students “celebrate success and express mutual wishes of gratitude and respect” (Lee, p. 596). According to the Court, compelling graduates and their families to make a choice between missing graduation or attending graduation and feeling compelled to stand for a religious part of the ceremony with which they disagree amounts to a kind of psychological coercion that leaves them “with no alternative but to submit” (p. 597).

In the end, the Court found the prayer exercises a violation of the Establishment Clause “because the State has in every practical sense compelled attendance and participation in an explicit religious exercise at an event of singular importance to every student, one the objecting student had no real alternative to avoid” (Lee, p. 598).

Justice Scalia wrote a scathing dissent, observing that the majority’s opinion in Lee “lays waste a tradition that is as old as public-school graduation ceremonies themselves” (p. 632). Nevertheless, Lee has not been overturned. Lee resulted in cases where school officials sought to circumvent the Court’s decision by permitting students to decide whether a prayer was permissible at a school event and then by changing a prayer to a student message. The notion was that student votes would have avoided the problem in Lee, in which a school official selected the person to pray, and the use of the student message was thought desirable to allow for secular content while avoiding the religious connotation of a prayer.

Eight years after Lee, in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000), the Supreme Court invalidated the use of a student message prior to every home football game despite a two-step process whereby students would first vote on whether to have a message and then vote on the student who would deliver the message. The Court pointed out that student-initiated and student-led messages did not amount to private speech because they were delivered over the school’s public address system on government property at a government-sponsored, school-related event and because the school’s tradition would encourage a message that was religious in nature.

On the other hand, the Eleventh Circuit, in Adler v. Duval County School Board (2000), reached a conclusion just the opposite of Santa Fe, finding that student-initiated and student-led messages at graduations constituted private speech and were not so entwined with governmental policies or so impregnated with governmental character as to become subject to the constitutional limitations placed on state action.

Ralph D. Mawdsley

See also Lemon v. Kurtzman; Prayer in Public Schools; Religious Activities in Schools; Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe

Legal Citations

  • Adler v. Duval County School Board, 206 F.3d 1070 (2000).
  • Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992).
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).
  • Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000).