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Case Argument: Lee v. Weisman 505 US 577 (1992)

Category Justice
Essay type Research
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Daniel Weisman filed for a temporary restraining order to prohibit middle and high school officials in Providence, Rhode Island from including public prayers in the graduation of his daughter Deborah Weisman four days before the ceremony. The District Court denied Weisman’s motion for lack of adequate time to consider it. The Weisman family then attended Deborah’s graduation at the Nathan Bishop Middle School and Rabbi Leslie Gutterman of Temple Beth El led the prayers. After the graduation, Weisman filed for a permanent injunction that would bar Robert E. Lee, Deborah’s middle school principal, and various other Providence School officials from inviting clergy to deliver invocations and benedictions at future graduations.

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LOCATION Nathan Bishop Middle School
DOCKET NO. 90-1014
DECIDED BY Rehnquist Court
LOWER COURT United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
CITATION 505 US 577 (1992)
ARGUED Nov 6, 1991
DECIDED Jun 24, 1992
Charles J. CooperArgued the cause for the petitioners
Sandra A. BlandingArgued the cause for the respondent
Kenneth W. Starron behalf of the United States as amicus curiae, supporting the Petitioners

Facts of the Case Lee vs. Weisman

In keeping with the practice of several other public middle and high school principals in Providence, Rhode Island, Robert E. Lee, a middle school principal, invited a rabbi to speak at his school's graduation ceremony. Daniel Weisman's daughter, Deborah, was among the graduates. Hoping to stop the rabbi from speaking at his daughter's graduation, Weisman sought a temporary restaining order in District Court - but was denied. After the ceremony, where prayers were recited, Weisman filed for a permanent injunction barring Lee and other Providence public school officials from inviting clergy to deliver invocations and benedictions at their schools' ceremonies. When the Court of Appeals affirmed a District Court ruling against the schools, Lee appealed to the Supreme Court and was granted certiorari.

The District Court restrained Lee and company from continuing the practice at future graduations because this violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Petitioners Lee and company then elevated the case to the Court of Appeals. The appellate court affirmed the District Court. Likewise, the US Supreme Court upheld that “Including clergy who offer prayers as part of an official public school graduation ceremony is forbidden by the Establishment Clause.”

Salient Points of the Case

The Supreme Court affirmed five points:

  1. The basic limitations of the Establishment Clause carries more weight than the principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion.
  2. The attempt to make prayers acceptable to most persons in a public school also involves the government and “government may not establish an official or civic religion…” as the Establishment Clause provides.
  3. “The State may no more use social pressure to enforce orthodoxy than it may use direct means…What might begin as a tolerant expression of religious views may end in a policy to indoctrinate and coerce.” Prayers in elementary and secondary schools are particularly risky since the youth are often susceptible to peer-pressure and conformity to social conventions.
  4. The real issue is that a student will have to choose between missing a graduation ceremony or conforming to a state-sponsored religious practice “in an environment where the risk of compulsion is especially high.”
  5. Prayers at a state legislature's opening, involves adults who are free to enter and leave with little comment while a graduation ceremony is more constraining since it involves the most important event that a student needs to attend.

Supporting Laws

The following statute and jurisprudences support the case:

  1. 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.’”
  2. The three-part Establishment Clause test in Lemon v. Kutzman 403 U.S. 602 (1971) which states that a “governmental practice must  reflect a clearly secular purpose; have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and avoid excessive government entanglement with religion.”
  3. “The principles governing the extent of permitted accommodation by the State for the religious beliefs and practices of its many citizens” as embodied in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter.


In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that government involvement in this case creates "a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school." Such conduct conflicts with settled rules proscribing prayer for students. The school's rule creates subtle and indirect coercion (students must stand respectfully and silently), forcing students to act in ways which establish a state religion. The cornerstone principle of the Establishment Clause is that government may not compose official prayers to recite as part of a religious program carried on by government.

Blackmun concurred: “Government may neither promote nor affiliate itself with any religious doctrine or organization, nor may it obtrude itself in the internal affairs of any religious institution…Government pressure to participate in a religious activity is an obvious indication that the government is endorsing or promoting religion.” Likewise, Souter also concurred: “I write on two issues : whether the Establishment Clause applies to practices that do not favor one religion or denomination over others, and whether state coercion of religious conformity, over and above state endorsement of religious exercise or belief, is a necessary element of an Establishment Clause violation.”


  1. Linder, D. (2009). “Introduction to the Establishment Clause.” Exploring Constitutional Conflicts. Kansas: University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School. Retrieved July 20, 2007, from
  2. U.S. Supreme Court. (1989). “County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573.”
  3. U.S. Supreme Court. (1992). “Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577.” FindLaw. Retrieved July 17, 2007, from
  4. U.S. Supreme Court. (1971). “Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602.” FindLaw. Retrieved July 20, 2007, from
  5. U.S. Supreme Court. (1984). “Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668.”
  6. U.S. Supreme Court. (1985). “Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38.”

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