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In Lee v. Weismen the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for a public school in Rhode Island to have a member of the clergy deliver a prayer at graduation ceremonies. In 1989 Robert E. Lee, principal of Nathan Bishop Middle School, invited a rabbi to deliver the prayers at their graduation ceremony. He was provided with the pamphlet “Guidelines for Civic Occasions” and advised that the prayers should be nonsectarian. Daniel Weisman, a parent of a student at the school, objected to the inclusion of prayers at the ceremony and sought a temporary restraining order. His request was denied, and the rabbi delivered the invocation and benediction, which had two references to “God” and one to “Lord”.
Daniel Weisman expressed, during an interview on C-Span, that he was not only offended, but accosted by the prayer. He stated that as a Jew it is prohibited to participate in a ritual of another religion, yet he and his daughter were forced to do so.
Subsequently, Weisman sought a permanent injunction barring Lee and other petitioners from inviting clergy to deliver invocations and benedictions at future graduations. A federal district court found the prayers unconstitutional under the so-called Lemon test, which the U.S. Supreme Court had outlined in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). The lemon test is a three part test that states a law must be secular in purpose, its primary purpose cannot endorse or inhibit religion, and that it cannot foster “excessive entanglement” between the state and religious institutions (Lemon v. Kurtzman, p612).When the Court of Appeals affirmed a District Court ruling against the schools, Lee appealed to the Supreme Court and was granted certiorari. (https://www.oyez.org/cases/1991/90-1014) The issue examined by the Supreme Court in this case was whether or not a school sponsored prayer at a graduation constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment.
Ultimately, they found in favor of the Weisman family. The Supreme Court used the precedent that a school sponsored prayer at school events has the effect of “endorsing” religion and is therefore unconstitutional. It violates the establishment clause because the school is essentially favoring one religion over the others. This violates part two of the lemon test is failed. Another issue is that the school informed parents that graduation was optional; therefore listening to the prayer was optional. The Supreme Court noted that graduation was a rite of passage and that students and families shouldn’t have to choose between not attending their graduation and conforming to “the state-supported practice.” The decision of the First Circuit was upheld in a 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision.
As an administrator, religion is such a slippery slope because it evokes such an emotional public response. In this case, it was common practice for clergy to perform prayers at graduation ceremonies. The principal was only following in the footsteps of those who held the office before him. Prior to this decision, prayer was essentially being forced upon students.
Until an issue is brought to the forefront and argued against, it can’t be considered unconstitutional. If it were not for Daniel Weisman and his daughter, we might still be praying at graduations, football games, and other school-based functions. Personally, I believe religion has no place in schools. I think if you want to pay respect to a higher power during a graduation ceremony or any other school events, suggest a moment of silence. In that moment, students and parents are able to respectfully pray to whomever they decide. I’m almost certain Principal Lee couldn’t foresee an issue of such magnitude arising when initially planning their middle school graduation. As an administrator dealing with anything that has to do with religion, it’s best to seek legal advice to protect the rights of the students and protect the school from undue legal turmoil.
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