Relevant Facts: Robert E. Lee, a middle school principal, invited a rabbi to be the commencement speaker at his school’s graduation ceremony. Having rabbis speak at commencements was routine for middle and schools in the Provide, RI area in which this particular school was located. Deborah Weisman, a graduate, did not want the rabbi to speak at her graduation, so her father sought a temporary restraining order in District Court to prevent the rabbi from speaking. The order was denied. Prayers were recited during the commencement, and afterward, Weisman sought relief in the form of a permanent injunction preventing Lee and other public school officials in the district from inviting clergy to speak at school ceremonies – though the relief was particularly sought regarding invocations and benedictions. The Court of Appeals granted said relief, after which Lee appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court and was granted certiorari.
Issues: The legal question presented was whether having clergy offer prayers at official public school ceremonies violates the First Amendment Establishment Clause?
Holding: The Supreme Court held that yes, having clergy offer prayers at official public school ceremonies does violate the First Amendment Establishment Clause.
Reasoning: The majority of the Court held that by including the rabbi’s participation created a “a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school.” The Court ruled that the school’s rules regarding such speeches subtely created coercion to sit through prayer even if they disagreed with it, which amounted to compelling students to participate in a state sanctioned religious activity.
Dissent: Associate Justice Scalia was one of the associate justices that dissented. In his opinion, he argued that “In holding that the Establishment Clause prohibits invocations and benedictions at public school graduation ceremonies, the Court – with nary a mention that it is doing so – lays waste a tradition that is as old as public school graduation ceremonies themselves, and that is a component of an even more longstanding American tradition of nonsectarian prayer to God at public celebrations generally. As its instrument of destruction, the bulldozer of its social engineering, the Court invents a boundless, and boundlessly manipulable, test of psychological coercion… 505 U.S. 577, 632." In short, the introduction and/or implementation of such prayer exercises have been part of the greater U.S. history since its founding, and as such, is of more sociological importance than sacred importance.