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

Author:Thomas C. Berg

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The principal of a public junior high school in Providence, Rhode Island, invited a clergyman, a rabbi, to give opening and closing prayers as part of the school's graduation ceremony. Although the rabbi composed the prayers himself, the officials gave him guidelines and advised that the prayers should be "nonsectarian." When a student challenged the constitutionality of this practice, the Supreme Court held, 5?4, that the school violated the ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE of the FIRST AMENDMENT by informally pressuring students to participate in a state-sponsored and state-controlled religious exercise.

Before Weisman, it was widely thought that the appointment of several "conservative" Justices might lead the REHNQUIST COURT to overrule WARREN COURT decisions and permit school-sponsored prayers or other religious exercises as long as the school did not directly coerce anyone

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to participate. Weisman did not decide the broad question of whether noncoercive exercises would ever be an unconstitutional ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION. Instead, the opinion (authored by Justice ANTHONY M. KENNEDY, an appointee of President RONALD REAGAN) held that the school placed "subtle" coercive pressure on students to participate in prayer. The graduation ceremony, though formally voluntary, was important enough to students that they should not have to miss it in order to avoid exposure to prayer. And although the audience was only required to stand silently during the prayers, the Court said that a "reasonable dissenter" might feel this forced her to signify her approval of them.

Weisman showed that even those who limit the establishment clause's prohibitions to government "coercion" can disagree on the meaning of that term. Justice ANTONIN SCALIA, dissenting, argued that only coercion "by threat of penalty" should be unconstitutional; the majority's broader notion of "psychological" coercion, he argued, would require forbidding the Pledge of Allegiance in schools as well (since the state cannot compel citizens to endorse political ideas either).

The broad coercion analysis suggested that most official religious exercises by public schools would be forbidden. The majority also looked beyond issues of coercion, stating that with religious ideas, unlike...

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