The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)

Freedom of Religion

How did the Rehnquist Court deal with the issue of school prayer?

The Court addressed the issue of school prayer in two decisions. In both decisions, the Court struck the policies down as violations of the Establishment Clause. In the first decision, Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Court struck down, 5–4, a middle school graduation prayer in Rhode Island. Even though the prayer was nonsectarian, the Court reasoned that it amounted to psychological coercion on the students attending the ceremony, who were a captive audience. “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,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. “This pressure, though subtle and indirect, can be as real as any overt compulsion.”

Then, in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated, by a 6–3 vote, a Texas high school’s practice of student-sponsored prayers announced over the loudspeakers at high school football games. “In this context the members of the listening audience must perceive the pregame message as a public expression of the views of the majority of the student body delivered with the approval of the school administration,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his majority opinion.


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