This lesson spotlights Deborah Weisman and the Supreme Court case Lee v. Weisman (1992). In this case, Deborah objected to her public school district’s practice of inviting clergy to deliver invocations and benedictions at graduation ceremonies. The Supreme Court agreed that the Rabbi-led non-sectarian prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The Nathan Bishop Middle School graduates looked up at the stage as the Rabbi stepped up to the podium. The Rabbi began the public school commencement ceremony by giving thanks to God for “the legacy of America where diversity is celebrated…” He continued, “O God, we are grateful for the learning which we have celebrated on this joyous commencement…we give thanks to you, Lord, for keeping us alive, sustaining us and allowing us to reach this special, happy occasion.”
Before the graduation, Principal Robert E. Lee had invited the clergyman and provided him a two-page instructional flyer, prepared by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He was advised that his prayer at graduation must be nonsectarian.
Student Deborah Weisman objected to the graduation prayer. Her father, Daniel Weisman, agreed. Though the Weisman family was Jewish, they believed the Rabbi’s prayer on behalf of the government-funded school was a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which holds, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” The school district asserted that the nonsectarian prayer did not endorse any religious viewpoint, and that the Establishment Clause should not prohibit such an activity.
The Supreme Court ruled in Lee. v. Weisman (1992) that the practice of inviting clergy to offer prayers at graduation did violate the Establishment Clause. Since attendance at graduation is a milestone very few students would be willing or able to skip, the state “in effect required participation in a religious exercise.” The Court asserted that the Establishment Clause “guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.”
The decision continued, “The lessons of the First Amendment are as urgent in the modern world as in the 18th Century when it was written. One timeless lesson is that if citizens are subjected to state sponsored religious exercises, the State disavows its own duty to guard and respect that sphere of inviolable conscience and belief which is the mark of a free people.”
- How did Principal Robert E. Lee advise the Rabbi to prepare his prayer?
- Why did Deborah Weisman and her father object to the Rabbi-led prayer at her public school graduation?
- How did the Supreme Court rule, and why?
- In his dissenting opinion, Justice Scalia wrote, “[T]he longstanding American tradition of prayer at official ceremonies displays with unmistakable clarity that the Establishment Clause does not forbid the government to accommodate it.” How, if at all, should the Court take tradition into account when deciding the constitutionality of state action?
- Do you believe a public school violates the Establishment Clause by inviting clergy to deliver nonsectarian prayer at graduation ceremonies? Why or why not?