Lee V. Weisman: The Issue of School Prayer and the Establishment Clause

The issue of school prayer and separating the church from the state is an issue that the Supreme Court has had to deal with throughout its history. The first case that the Supreme Court was approached with was Lemon v. Kurtzman in which a three part litmus test was used as the basis for a judgement in the decision. In Lemon v. Kurtzman the judges decided the case based on the litmus test of whether or not the school prayer violated the establishment clause of the separation of church and state. In Lemon v. Kurtzman the court also stated that the use of the religious practice had to have a secular purpose and “avoid excessive entanglements of government and religion.”

In Lee v. Weisman a student named Deborah Weisman and her father Daniel Weisman brought forth a suit in court because the school she attended in Rhode Island named the Nathan Bishop Middle School of Province invited members of the clergy to talk as graduation speakers. In this case, a rabbi was used as the graduation speaker and he simply thanked god for liberty and asked that he bless the students and teachers. In the suit filed by the girl’s father, he claimed that the school was being turned into a house of worship. The American Civil Liberties Union supported their suit.

The case reached the Supreme Court and in the ruling the court ruled 5 to 4 in favor of the Weismans. Justices Kennedy, Blackmun, Souter, Stevens and O’Conner voted for Weisman while Scalia, Rehinquist, White and Thomas voted in dissent. The case was decided on November 6, 1991.

Judge Kennedy who wrote the majority opinion stated that school prayer was an obvious violation of the Establishment clause separating the religion from schools. Kennedy stated that “to state sponsored religious excercises, the government itself fails in its duty to guard and respect that sphere of inviolable conscious and belief which is the mark of a free people.”

Justice Scalia wrote the dissent and stated that school prayer did not have an impact on the mind of adolescents. Furthermore Scalia stated that school prayer brings people together and it is something that should be promoted in schools.

This case was also very similar to Engel v. Vitale in 1962 which also voted against school prayer. In the majority opinion in Engel v. Vitale which was written by Justice Hugo Black, he stated that school prayer was being sponsored by the government and that is violated the Establishment clause of a separation of church and state. The decision was 7 to 1. The lone dissent came from Justice Potter Stewart. Justice White abstained from the vote.

These three cases that went to the Supreme Court all proved that there was a fine line between church and state that could not be crossed. School prayer was declared indeed a violation of church and state and the establishment clause.

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