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Lee v. Weisman

    Brief Fact Summary. A school that invited a rabbi to deliver nonsectarian prayers at the school’s graduation ceremony was held by the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) to be a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution (Constitution).

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Constitution forbids the state to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school graduation ceremony. To say that a student must remain apart from the ceremony at the opening invocation and closing benediction is to risk conforming uniformity in an environment analogous to the classroom setting, where we have said the risk of compulsion is high.

    Facts. The principal of Providence Middle School invited a rabbi to deliver nonsectarian prayers at the school’s graduation ceremony. The Respondent, Deborah Weisman (Respondent), a student at the school, raised an Establishment Clause challenge to the practice of prayer at the district’s graduation ceremonies.

    Issue. Whether the district’s practice of prayer at the graduation ceremony was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution?

    Held. Yes. Judgment of the lower court affirmed. Even for students who object to 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 degree of school involvement here made it clear that the graduation prayers bore the imprint of the state and thus, put school-age children who objected in an untenable position. For a dissenter of high school age, who has a reasonable perception that she is being forced by the state to pray in a manner her conscience will not allow, the injury is no less real. The state may not, consistent with the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, place primary and secondary school children in this position. Therefore, the district’s practice of prayer at the graduation ceremony was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

    Dissent. In holding that the Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibits invocations and benedictions at public school ceremonies, the Supreme Court lays waste a tradition that is as old as public school graduation ceremonies themselves. As an instrument of destruction, the Supreme Court invents a boundless and boundlessly manipulatable, test of psychological coercion.
    Concurrence. Government pressure to participate in a religious activity is an obvious indication that the government is endorsing or promoting religion. But it is not enough that the government restrain from compelling religious practices, it must not engage in them either.
    When public school officials, armed with the state’s authority, convey an endorsement of religion to their students, they strike near the core of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. However, “ceremonial” their messages may be, they are flatly unconstitutional.

    Discussion. Despite a history of traditions, the Supreme Court held that religious statements made at public school ceremonies violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.


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