BJC fights for strong Establishment Clause standard in case involving clergy prayers at graduation

Lee v. Weisman (1992)

The Weisman family talks to reporters outside of the Supreme Court in 1991. Third from left is BJC General Counsel Oliver “Buzz” Thomas.

In a brief filed in a “school prayer” case at the Supreme Court, the BJC argued that the inclusion of a benediction in a middle school commencement program was unconstitutional. The brief defended the Court’s neutrality standard in Establishment Clause cases against an attempt to replace it with a much lower standard that would prohibit only government coercion in matters of religion.

In Lee v. Weisman, the Baptist Joint Committee joined a coalition of religious and civil liberties groups – including the American Jewish Committee, National Council of Churches, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the Anti-Defamation League and People for the American Way – in filing a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Weisman family challenging the graduation prayers as unconstitutional. Although the BJC does not oppose all forms of ceremonial prayers, the prayers at issue in Lee v. Weisman were clearly school-sponsored, resulting in state promotion of religion: the graduates were young; the ceremony was planned and organized by the faculty and held on school property; the rabbi was selected by the school and given written guidelines to follow in preparing the prayers; and the audience was captive.

The case had another important component. For the two decades before the case, the Court had used the “Lemon test” to ensure government neutrality toward religion. First articulated in Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971, the test asks whether the purpose or primary effect of a governmental action endorses or inhibits religion and whether it creates excessive entanglement between government and religion.

In this case, however, school officials wanted the Supreme Court to use a less stringent standard that would permit wide-ranging government involvement in religion as long as religious belief or practice was not forced.

“At stake in Lee v. Weisman is far more than commencement prayer,” BJC General Counsel Oliver S. Thomas wrote at the time. “The Court is being asked to jettison the historic principle of government neutrality toward religion. The proposed replacement would allow government to sponsor, endorse and support religion in non-coercive ways.”

In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the BJC that school-sponsored religious exercises in public schools violate the Constitution. In its ruling, the Court also denied the attempt to use the case to discard the “Lemon test.”

In affirming the lower court rulings, the High Court majority called government’s involvement in the religious exercises “pervasive, to the point of creating a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school.”

“The undeniable fact is that the school district’s supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places public pressure, as well as peer pressure, on attending students to stand as a group or, at least, maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction,” according to the majority decision. “This pressure, though subtle and indirect, can be as real as any overt compulsion.”

Read the BJC’s brief   Read the Supreme Court decision