A Jewish parent in Providence, Rhode Island challenged the local school district's policy of including a prayer in its graduation ceremonies. At the disputed graduation, a Rabbi thanked God for "the legacy of America where diversity is celebrated...O God, we are grateful for the learning which we have celebrated on this joyous commencement...we give thanks to you, Lord, for keeping us alive, sustaining us and allowing us to reach this special, happy occasion." The Bush administration agreed with the school board which argued that the prayer did not demonstrate a religious endorsement. The administration called for the court to overturn the three-prong test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman that was used to determine which laws violated the establishment clause. Neither the district nor appellate courts chose to do so.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the graduation prayer violated the Establishment Clause.
|Majority Opinion: (Justice Kennedy)|
The government's involvement in the religious exercise at graduation is 'pervasive'. The prayers violate the earlier rulings preventing school sponsored prayer. The state places both public and peer pressure on students to take rise for and remain silent during the prayer. Although a person might stand for the prayer merely as a sign of respect for others, such an action could properly be construed as accepting the message. The control held by teachers and principals over the students' actions forces those graduating to submit to the standards of behavior.
Dissenting Opinion: (Justice Scalia:)
This decision goes against years of history. The Lemon Test (Lemon) should not be used as the defining test of what is permissible under the Establishment Clause because, "if applied with consistency it would invalidate longstanding traditions." Non-sectarian prayer at public gatherings and celebrations is a tradition that ought to be protected within the confines of the Establishment Clause.
The Supreme Court rejected the opportunity to reverse the standard it established in Lemon. This ruling extended the prohibition of school prayer to graduation ceremonies. It failed to accept that a student would not be harmed by standing during the prayer without sharing the message contained in the prayer.
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Last modified: 02/16/01