Lee v. Weisman

LOCATION: Nathan Bishop Middle School

DOCKET NO.: 90-1014
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: 505 US 577 (1992)
ARGUED: Nov 06, 1991
DECIDED: Jun 24, 1992

Charles J. Cooper - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Kenneth W. Starr - on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae, supporting the Petitioners
Sandra A. Blanding - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

In keeping with the practice of several other public middle and high school principals in Providence, Rhode Island, Robert E. Lee, a middle school principal, invited a rabbi to speak at his school's graduation ceremony. Daniel Weisman's daughter, Deborah, was among the graduates. Hoping to stop the rabbi from speaking at his daughter's graduation, Weisman sought a temporary restaining order in District Court - but was denied. After the ceremony, where prayers were recited, Weisman filed for a permanent injunction barring Lee and other Providence public school officials from inviting clergy to deliver invocations and benedictions at their schools' ceremonies. When the Court of Appeals affirmed a District Court ruling against the schools, Lee appealed to the Supreme Court and was granted certiorari.


Does the inclusion of clergy who offer prayers at official public school ceremonies violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Media for Lee v. Weisman

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 06, 1991 in Lee v. Weisman

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 24, 1992 in Lee v. Weisman

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 90-1014, Lee against Weisman will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The summary from the opinion of the court is as follows:

School principals in the public school system of City of Providence, Rhode Island are permitted to invite members of the clergy to offer invocation and benediction prayers as part of formal graduation ceremonies for middle schools and for high schools.

We granted certiorari when the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that this practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In June of 1989, Deborah Weisman graduated in a formal ceremony from the Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, and she was about 14 at the time.

The principal of Deborah's middle school invited Rabbi Leslie Gutterman to deliver two prayers at the graduation, an invocation and a benediction.

The principal provided the Rabbi with a pamphlet to guide him in the composition of the prayers and instructed him that the prayers should be non-sectarian.

Deborah's father, Daniel Weisman, objected to the prayers but to no avail.

The Weismans attended the ceremony and the Rabbi delivered the prayers.

Both prayers made specific reference to God but did not make explicit reference to the tenants of any particular religious sect.

During the prayers, the students stood and as in most graduation ceremonies, the students were sitting together as a group under the supervision of teachers and school officials.

Deborah is now enrolled in a Providence public high school, and her father seeks an injunction forbidding school officials from including prayers like the Rabbi's in future graduation ceremonies.

These dominant facts mark and control the confines of our decision.

State officials direct the performance of a formal religious exercise at promotional and graduation ceremonies for secondary schools.

Even for those students who object the religious exercise, their attendance and participation in the state-sponsored religious activity are in a fair and real sense obligatory though the school district does not require attendance as a condition for receipt of the diploma.

The government involvement with the religious activity in this case is pervasive to the point of creating a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school.

Conducting this form of religious observance conflicts with set of rules which pertaining to prayer exercises for students.

It is beyond dispute that at a minimum Constitution guarantees the government may not coerce anyone to support a participating religion or its exercise or otherwise act in a way which establishes a state religion or religious faith or tends to do so.

The state's involvement in the school prayers challenged today is contrary to these central principles and therefore, violates the Establishment Clause.

That involvement is as troubling as it is undenied.

School officials decided that an invocation and benediction should be given chose the religious participant here Rabbi, and directed in control the content of the prayers 30 years ago.

We recognize that it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as part of a religious program carried on by the government, and that is what school officials attempted to do.

Petitioners argue, and we find nothing in the case to refute it, that the directions for the content of the prayers were a good faith attempt by the school to avoid divisive sectarianism.

Now, we are asked to recognize the existence of a practice of non-sectarian prayer, a prayer within the embrace of what is known as the Judeo-Christian tradition, a prayer which is more acceptable than the one which, for example, makes explicit references to the God of Israel or to Jesus Christ or to a Patron Saint, but we could not do so.

The First Amendment's religion clauses mean that religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the state.

The design of the Constitution is that preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere which itself has promised freedom to pursue that mission.

Suggestion that government may establish an official more civic religion as a means of avoiding the establishment of a religion with more specific creeds strikes us a contradiction that cannot be accepted.

The degree of school involvement here made it clear that the graduation prayers for the imprint of the state and thus, puts school-aged children to object it in an untenable position.

To endure the speech of false ideas or offensive content and then to counter it is part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society, a society which insists upon open discourse towards the end of a tolerant citizenry.

Intolerance does presuppose some mutuality of obligation.