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Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992)

Rhode Island public schools frequently invited local clergy members to participate in graduation ceremonies at the middle and high school level. These clergy were provided with guidelines for non-denominational and non-sectarian prayers for invocations and benedictions. The father of a student at Nathan Bishop Middle School sued, claiming that inviting a rabbi to lead prayers at the middle school graduation was a violation of the Establishment Clause.

"Whether including clerical members who offer prayers as part of the official school graduation ceremony is consistent with the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment. . ."

By a 5-4 vote, the Court held that schools may not promote religious exercises either directly or through an invited guest at graduation ceremonies.

The Court found that the Establishment Clause forbids government from coercing people into participating in a religious activity. Forcing students to choose between attending a graduation ceremony containing religious elements with which they disagree or avoiding the offending practices by not attending their graduation ceremony was inherently coercive and unlawful. The Court found that students who do attend are exposed to subtle coercion to appear as though they approve of or are participating in the prayer.

"The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion does not supersede the fundamental limitations imposed by the Establishment Clause. It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which 'establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so." (Justice Anthony Kennedy)

"Thus, while I have no quarrel with the Court’s general proposition that the Establishment Clause 'guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise,' I see no warrant for expanding the concept of coercion beyond acts backed by threat of penalty -- a brand of coercion that, happily, is readily discernible to those of us who have made a career of reading the disciples of Blackstone rather than of Freud." (Justice Antonin Scalia)

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Last updated: Wednesday, February 10, 2016 | 09:25:07