505 U.S. 577 (1992), argued 6 Nov. 1991, decided 24 June 1992 by vote of 5 to 4; Kennedy for the Court, Blackmun and Souter concurring, joined by Stevens and O’Connor, Scalia in dissent, joined by Rehnquist, White, and Thomas. Lee v. Weisman was the most important decision of the 1991–92 term involving the much vexed question of the role of religion in American life.
The case involved the practice by the Nathan Bishop Middle School of Providence, Rhode Island, of inviting members of the clergy to offer prayers at graduation ceremonies. In this instance, a student, Deborah Weisman, and her father, Daniel, who were Jewish, filed suit in 1989 after a rabbi offered an invocation and benediction at Bishop Middle School that Deborah attended. The rabbi's simple prayer had thanked God for the liberty that America enjoyed and asked for God's blessing on the teachers, students, and administrators of the school. The Weismans claimed that the school had essentially turned itself into a house of worship, and their position was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The federal district court in Providence and the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston found the prayers unconstitutional. They did so based on the Supreme Court's ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), in which the justices established a three-part test for deciding whether a government-sponsored religious event violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. That highly controversial test required that in order to pass constitutional muster, the practice had to have a secular purpose, could not primarily advance or inhibit religion, and had to avoid any excessive entanglements of government and religion. The administration of President George Bush had urged the Court to sustain the practice of the Providence schools and overturn Lemon and its test.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's opinion for the Court skirted Lemon and with it the need to establish a new standard of review. Prayer in the public schools was so obviously a violation of the Establishment Clause, Kennedy found, that Weisman could be decided without reexamining the Court's other church-state precedents. At the same time, Kennedy carefully stated that the decision to strike down the prayer activities in the Providence schools did not necessarily apply in cases that might involve adults. Kennedy also insisted that the First Amendment's Establishment Clause was just as important in the twentieth century as it was when written in the eighteenth century. If citizens are subjected, he wrote, “to state-sponsored religious exercises,” the government itself fails in its “duty to guard and respect that sphere of inviolable conscience and belief which is the mark of a free people” (p. 592).
Justice Antonin Scalia authored a sarcastic, angry dissent. He scolded the majority for worrying about the mental state of adolescents who most likely simply ignored the prayer in any case. More important, Scalia wrote, was the accepted practice of using prayer to bring persons together voluntarily, a practice that the government and school boards should be able to promote.