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Lee v. Weisman

112 Sup.Ct. 2649 (1992)

The Lewis Roca Rothgerber Religious Institutions Group gratefully acknowledges the contribution of the Ethics and Public Policy Center which provided the following case commentary taken from Terry Eastland, Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court: The Cases That Define the Debate over Church and State (1993).

The Supreme Court addressed questions of school prayer for the first time in 1962, holding in Engel v. Vitale that a state-sponsored prayer used in public schools violated the Constitution. Thirty years later, in Lee v. Weisman, the Court extended the principle of Engel to hold that a state may not sponsor prayers at middle and high school graduation ceremonies.

The case arose from Providence, Rhode Island, whose middle and high school principals invited members of the clergy from around the city to give invocation and benediction prayers as part of their schools' graduation ceremonies. Robert E. Lee, principal of Nathan Bishop Middle School, invited Rabbi Leslie Gutterman of Temple Beth El to offer the prayers at his school's 1989 graduation ceremony. Principal Lee gave Rabbi Gutterman a pamphlet containing guidelines for the composition of the prayers and advised him that the invocation and benediction should be nonsectarian. The prayers that the rabbi said at the ceremony, which took place on school premises on June 29, 1989, were of that nature.

Four days before the ceremony Daniel Weisman, whose daughter Deborah was in the graduating class, sought in her behalf a temporary restraining order in federal district court to prohibit school officials from including a prayer in the graduation ceremony. The motion was denied, but in July 1989 Daniel Weisman amended his complaint, seeking a permanent injunction against including prayers in Providence's middle and high school graduation ceremonies. The district court held that the graduation-ceremony prayers were unconstitutional, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed.

Daniel Weisman prevailed in the Supreme Court by a 5-to-4 vote. Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by Justices Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, and David Souter, wrote for the Court. The case produced three other opinions: a concurrence by Justice Blackmun, a concurrence by Justice Souter, and a dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Kennedy's opinion for the Court, Justice Souter's concurrence, and Justice Scalia's dissent are presented here. They are followed by editorial responses from the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News.

It was widely expected that the Court would use the Lee case to reconsider its approach, laid down in Lemon v. Kurtzman, to establishment questions. That did not happen. Of interest, however, is not only the argument that took place between Justices Kennedy and Scalia, in their opinions, but also the inquiry into the original meaning of the no-establishment provision undertaken by Justice Souter in his opinion, which seeks to answer (then Associate) Justice William Rehnquist's lengthy dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985).

Participating in Lee v. Weisman, decided June 24, 1992, were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas, and Byron R. White.


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