Lee v. Weisman,
505 U.S. 577 (1992)

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No. 90-1014. Argued November 6, 1991-Decided June 24, 1992

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.

Held: Including clergy who offer prayers as part of an official public school graduation ceremony is forbidden by the Establishment Clause. Pp.586-599.

(a) This Court need not revisit the questions of the definition and scope of the principles governing the extent of permitted accommodation by the State for its citizens' religious beliefs and practices, for the controlling precedents as they relate to prayer and religious exercise in primary and secondary public schools compel the holding here. Thus, the Court will not reconsider its decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U. S. 602. 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." Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U. S. 668, 678. Pp. 586-587.

(b) State officials here direct the performance of a formal religious exercise at secondary schools' promotional and graduation ceremonies. Lee's decision that prayers should be given and his selection of the religious participant are choices attributable to the State. Moreover, through the pamphlet and his advice that the prayers be nonsectarian, he directed and controlled the prayers' content. That the directions may have been given in a good-faith attempt to make the prayers acceptable to most persons does not resolve the dilemma caused by the school's involvement, since the government may not establish an official or civic religion as a means of avoiding the establishment of a religion with more specific creeds. Pp. 587-590.

(c) The Establishment Clause was inspired by the lesson that in the hands of government what might begin as a tolerant expression of religious views may end in a policy to indoctrinate and coerce. Prayer exercises in elementary and secondary schools carry a particular risk of indirect coercion. Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421; School Dist. of Abington v. Schempp, 374 U. S. 203. 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. A reasonable dissenter of high school age could believe that standing or remaining silent signified her own participation in, or approval of, the group exercise, rather than her respect for it. And the State may not place the student dissenter in the dilemma of participating or protesting. Since adolescents are often susceptible to peer pressure, especially in matters of social convention, the State may no more use social pressure to enforce orthodoxy than it may use direct means. The embarrassment and intrusion of the religious exercise cannot be refuted by arguing that the prayers are of a de minimis character, since that is an affront to the rabbi and those for whom the prayers have meaning, and since any intrusion was both real and a violation of the objectors' rights. pp. 590-594.

(d) 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." Also not dispositive is the contention that prayers are an essential part of these ceremonies because for many persons the occasion would lack meaning without the recognition that human achievements cannot be understood apart from their spiritual essence. This position fails to acknowledge that what

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

The Establishment Clause does not permit a public school to hold a religious prayer led by clergy during its graduation.


Planning the graduation ceremony for the Nathan Bishop Middle School, principal Robert Lee asked a rabbi to deliver a benediction. This was offensive to the parents of one of the students, Deborah Weisman, who sought an injunction preventing the rabbi from participating in the ceremony. They failed to receive the injunction at the initial stage of litigation, so they attended the graduation ceremony, where the rabbi delivered the prayer. It did not refer to any particular religion and likely was based on a pamphlet for composing prayers for civil occasions that Lee provided to the rabbi. However, the parents continued to pursue the case and were successful at the First Circuit.



  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • David H. Souter

Contrary to the expectations of some observers, Kennedy extended the Court's jurisprudence in cases involving prayers at school despite critical statements that he had previously made about it. (In fact, Kennedy initially planned to uphold the school's decision after hearing oral arguments but changed his mind during deliberations.) However, his decision was relatively narrow compared to previous decisions on prayers and was based on the principal's decision to control the content of the prayers by giving the rabbi a pamphlet on composing prayers for civil occasions. Even though the prayer did not refer to any particular religion, similarly non-sectarian prayers previously had been struck down under the Establishment Clause.

The state pointed out that Weisman was not required to attend the ceremony, nor was she required to stand during the prayer or otherwise acknowledge it. But Kennedy was not persuaded, responding that a school graduation is an important moment in an individual's life, and a student should not feel compelled to skip it because of an issue like a prayer. He also felt that it was unreasonable to expect a single student not to stand while all of her peers did, considering that children are particularly responsive to peer pressure. He felt that the principal's distinct role in directing the process and his control over the graduation ceremony amounted to unconstitutional coercion of the students to participate in the school-sponsored religious activity, even though any coercion was indirect. In the context of environments like schools, therefore, coercion should be interpreted broadly.


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

Going beyond Kennedy's narrowly articulated coercion test, Blackmun reminded readers that laws still might be invalid under the Establishment Clause even if they were not directly or indirectly coercive.


  • David H. Souter (Author)

Relying on a historical argument, Souter underscored Kennedy's point that the nonsectarian nature of the prayer did not insulate it from constitutional challenges. According to James Madison and the other figures influential in drafting the First Amendment, this type of prayer also would have been eschewed.


  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Clarence Thomas

The dissenters argued that prayers and benedictions at school graduations are part of a venerable American tradition of invoking God at public ceremonies. In contrast to Blackmun, Scalia felt that Kennedy's coercion test was too broad, since it incorporated indirect and latent forms of coercion. He also took issue with Kennedy's emphasis on the power of peer pressure and the importance of attending graduation ceremonies, finding that the Establishment Clause would not be violated unless the school imposed an actual penalty for non-compliance with the prayer.

Case Commentary

In this decision, the Court was less persuaded by arguments based on tradition than it often has been. Schools historically often have used religious figures to lead prayers at graduations, but this long-standing trend did not override concerns based on the text of the First Amendment. However, it is unclear whether this decision extends to situations beyond public schools. It did build on it in a later case that prevented public schools from conducting student-led prayers before football games.

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