Thirty years after the Supreme Court ruled prayer in public schools to be inconsistent with the establishment clause in Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), the Court ruled, in Lee v. Weisman (1992), this prohibition included public school graduations. Secondary principals in the public schools of the Providence, Rhode Island, customarily invited members of the clergy to give invocations and benedictions at graduation ceremonies. Robert E. Lee, the Nathan Bishop Middle School principal, invited Rabbi Leslie Gutterman to offer prayers at the graduation of Deborah Weisman’s class. Lee provided the rabbi with a pamphlet, ‘‘Guidelines for Civic Occasions’’ prepared by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Furthermore, he advised him the prayers should be nonsectarian. The girl’s parents disagreed with this practice, and four days before the ceremony sought a temporary restraining order to prevent it. The U.S. District Court for Rhode Island denied their motion and, despite their objections, the family attended the ceremony, where the rabbi’s prayers were straightforward and simply thanked God for the freedom Americans enjoyed and asked for blessings on the students, teachers, and administrators of the school.
In July 1989, the month after the ceremony, the Weismans filed suit seeking to put an end to the practice of clergy-led prayers at graduation. The American Civil Liberties Union and other like-minded groups supported their suit. The Federal District Court for Rhode Island and the First Circuit Court of Appeals both found the prayers unconstitutional on the basis of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), in which the Court had established a three-prong test to determine whether a governmental practice violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
The issue for the Court was whether including clergy-offered prayers as part of the official public school graduation ceremony was consistent with the religion clauses of the First Amendment, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, which makes the clauses applicable to states and their school districts. In the end, the Court held that the prayers were, indeed, a violation. Initially, it should be noted, Justice Anthony Kennedy was assigned to write the majority opinion for a five-to-four court upholding the prayers. After several months, he communicated to Justice Harry Blackmun that his (Kennedy’s) opinion looked wrong, and his new draft became the opinion for a five-to-four court declaring the prayers unconstitutional.
The opinion held the prayers were a violation of the establishment clause and that the Court did not need to revisit relevant precedents, including Lemon. The school official, a surrogate of the state, had chosen to have prayers at graduation, invited clergy, provided the pamphlet, as well as provided advice about the prayers. The Court held that through the delivery of the pamphlet with instructions that Lee was directing and controlling the prayers’ content. Kennedy’s opinion held the government was failing in its duty to guard and respect that sphere of inviolable conscience and belief that is the mark of a free people, so subjecting citizens to state-sponsored religious exercises. It was an undeniable fact that the school district’s supervision and control of the ceremony placed public and peer pressure on attending students to stand as a group.
For Kennedy, the critical issue was whether there was present coercion to attend and participate in the graduation ceremony that contained a religious element. The opinion relied quite heavily on the argument that there are heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools. Furthermore, the opinion cited psychological research supporting the common assumption that adolescents are often susceptible to pressure from peers toward conformity. The Court’s reasoning was that the districts supervision and control of a middle or high school graduation ceremony places subtle and indirect pressures 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 personal participation in, or approval of, the group exercise, rather than respect for it. In the opinion, the Court acknowledged that if the affected citizens were mature adults, the choice to stand or remain seated during the prayers could be viewed differently. It was the reasoning revolving around public and peer pressure that the dissenting opinion, authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, criticized strongly, arguing that most of the students would ignore the content of the prayer, thus it would not present any mental or psychological harm.
A position put forward by the school district cited the option of not attending the ceremony if one objects to the prayers. The Court held that claiming a teenage student in our society has a real choice not to attend his or her high school graduation is formalistic to the extreme. The opinion continued that the constitution forbid the school district to exact religious conformity from a student at the price of attending ones’ own graduation. A basic tenet of the First Amendment is that the state and school district cannot require one of its citizens to forfeit his or her rights and benefits as the price of resisting conformity to state-sponsored religious practice.
The majority opinion concluded by making the point that no holding by the Court suggests that a public school district can compel a student to participate in a religious exercise and that was the effect of inviting clergy to offer prayers at graduation ceremonies.
Thousands of public high schools across the country had, for years, used prayers at graduation ceremonies. Since June 1992, if a school district is to be in compliance with the ruling of the Court, this is a practice that has ceased to exist. The reasoning in Lee continues to be used by the Court in guiding its decisions. In Sante Fe Independent School District v Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000), the Court struck down a district policy allowing for prayers at football games using the coercion and attendance reasoning used in Lee.
J. MARK ALCORN
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited