Lee v. Weisman
Decided on June 24, 1992; 505 US 577

Clergy-led prayer as part of an official public school graduation ceremony
is in violation of the Establishment Clause.



A. Issues Discussed: Prayer in schools

B. Legal Question Presented:

Is including clerical members who offer prayers as part of the official school graduation ceremony consistent with the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment?


A. Background:

"Principals of public middle and high schools in Providence, Rhode Island, are permitted to invite members of the clergy to give invocations and benedictions at their schools' graduation ceremonies. Petitioner Lee, a middle school principal, invited a rabbi to offer such prayers at the graduation ceremony for Deborah Weisman's class, gave the rabbi a pamphlet containing guidelines for the composition of public prayers at civic ceremonies, and advised him that the prayers should be nonsectarian.

Shortly before the ceremony, the District Court denied the motion of respondent Weisman, Deborah's father, for a temporary restraining order to prohibit school officials from including the prayers in the ceremony. Deborah and her family attended the ceremony, and the prayers were recited. Subsequently, Weisman sought a permanent injunction barring Lee and other petitioners, various Providence public school officials, from inviting clergy to deliver invocations and benedictions at future graduations. It appears likely that such prayers will be conducted at Deborah's high school graduation.

The District Court enjoined petitioners from continuing the practice at issue on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals affirmed."

On certiorari, the US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Sandra A. Blanding argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief were Steven R. Shapiro and John A. Powell.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for Americans for Religious Liberty by Ronald A. Lindsay; and for the American Jewish Congress et al. by Douglas Laycock.

Charles J. Cooper argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Michael A. Carvin, Peter J. Ferrara, Robert J. Cynkar, Joseph A. Rotella, and Jay Alan Sekulow.

Solicitor General Starr argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Assistant Attorney General Gerson, Deputy Solicitor General Roberts, Deputy Assistant Attorney General McGinnis, and Richard H. Seamon.

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the Board of Education of Alpine School District by Brinton R. Burbidge and Merrill F. Nelson; for the Christian Legal Society et al. by Edward McGlynn Gaffney, Michael J. Woodruff, Samuel E. Ericsson, and Forest D. Montgomery; for the Clarendon Foundation by Kemp R. Harshman and Ronald [505 U.S. 577, 580] D. Maines; for Concerned Women for America et al. by James Matthew Henderson, Sr., Jordan Lorence, Mark N. Troobnick, and Thomas Patrick Monaghan; for Focus on the Family et al. by Stephen H. Galebach and Laura D. Millman; for the Liberty Counsel by Mathew D. Staver; for the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs by Nathan Lewin and Dennis Rapps; for the National Legal Foundation by Robert K. Skolrood and Brian M. McCormick; for the Rutherford Institute et al. by John W. Whitehead, Alexis I. Crow, A. Eric Johnston, Stephen E. Hurst, Joseph Secola, Thomas S. Neuberger, J. Brian Heller, Amy Dougherty, David Melton, Thomas W. Strahan, Robert R. Melnick, William Bonner, Larry Crain, W. Charles Bundren, and James Knicely; for Specialty Research Associates, Inc., et al. by Jordan Lorence; for the Southern Baptist Convention Christian Life Commission by Michael K. Whitehead and James M. Smart, Jr.; and for the United States Catholic Conference by Mark E. Chopko and Phillip H. Harris.


The US Supreme Court held that "Including clergy who offer prayers as part of an official public school graduation ceremony is forbidden by the Establishment Clause...

The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion does not supersede the fundamental limitations imposed by the Establishment Clause, which guarantees, at a minimum, that a government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which 'establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so...'

Prayer exercises in elementary and secondary schools carry a particular risk of indirect coercion. The school district's supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places subtle and indirect public and peer pressure on attending students to stand as a group or maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction...

Petitioners' argument that the option of not attending the ceremony excuses any inducement or coercion in the ceremony itself is rejected. In this society, high school graduation is one of life's most significant occasions, and a student is not free to absent herself from the exercise in any real sense of the term 'voluntary'..."

The US Supreme Court affirmed the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit judgment.

Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con

  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)

    The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmance of the judgment of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit; the Supreme Court affirmed in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.