BRIA 10 1 c Fear? | Religious Rights in Conflict

Use of Public School Facilities

A New York State law permits school facilities (like auditoriums) to be used by community groups after school hours. The law, however, excludes groups wanting to use the facilities for religious purposes.

The pastor of Lamb's Chapel, an evangelical church located in the Center Moriches Union Free School District of New York, requested the use of a school auditorium to show a series of films. The films featured lectures by a licensed psychologist who advocated a return to traditional Christian family values. The school board turned down the pastor's request on the grounds that the films had a religious purpose. The pastor believed this should not matter. He brought suit in federal court on the grounds that the school board's exclusion had violated the rights of freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and equal protection of the laws.

In federal court, attorneys for the school district argued that the school auditorium was a "limited public forum" (not generally open for public use like a park). As such, the school board could restrict certain kinds of subject matter and speakers as long as it was done in a reasonable manner. Attorneys for the school district argued that if the school board allowed Lamb's Chapel to use public school property, they would seem to show favoritism to a particular religion, and would therefore violate the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 1993, the court ruled unanimously in favor of Lamb's Chapel. Writing the opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice Byron R. White stated that the school district would have permitted groups with social or civic purposes to use its facilities to present information on family values. The only reason the district denied Lamb's Chapel the use of its facilities, Justice White continued, was because "The presentation would have been from a religious perspective." Therefore, the school district was discriminating against a speaker (on film) because of his point of view, a clear violation of freedom of speech.

Justice White added that there would have been no violation of the Establishment Clause because the films would not be shown to a classroom of students during school hours.

[Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 113 S.Ct. 2141 (1993)]

Prayers at Public School Graduations

In 1989, the principal of Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island, asked Rabbi Leslie Gutterman to deliver an invocation and benediction at the school's graduation. The principal, Robert Lee, gave Rabbi Gutterman a copy of "Guidelines for Civic Occasions" to help him prepare. This guide stressed that any public prayers or other remarks should be nonsectarian.

Rabbi Gutterman's invocation and benediction were brief and general. While he mentioned God, the rabbi did not discuss any particular religious beliefs. Although attendance at the school's graduation was voluntary, virtually all the graduates were present.

After the graduation, the father of one of the students went to federal court to secure an injunction (court order) against any further religious exercises at public school graduation ceremonies. He argued that exercises conducted by members of the clergy violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The case, Lee v. Weisman, finally ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 1992 split decision, the Supreme Court agreed that invocations and benedictions like those included in the Nathan Bishop Middle School graduation were unconstitutional.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority. "The government involvement with religious activity in this case," said Justice Kennedy, "is pervasive, to the point of creating a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school." Therefore, in the view of the Supreme Court, the school violated the First Amendment's prohibition against the establishment of religion.

A number of facts led to the Supreme Court's decision. The school principal Robert Lee, a government employee, requested an invocation and benediction in the first place, and chose who would deliver them. After selecting Rabbi Gutterman, Lee involved himself further by offering advice on how the clergyman should compose his prayers or remarks.

Most decisive was the lack of voluntary participation by the students. Justice Kennedy wrote that the students "For all practical purposes, are obliged to attend." Moreover, once seated for graduation, how could any of those not wishing to participate in the invocation and benediction reasonably avoid doing so? [Lee v. Weisman, 112 S.Ct. 2649 (1992)]

Another school graduation case, Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, was remanded by the Supreme Court. This case involved an invocation and benediction voluntarily written and delivered by members of a public high school graduating class. In this case, a Texas school board (for the Clear Creek Independent School District) passed a resolution in 1987 which provides the following:

  1. The use of an invocation and/or benediction at high school graduation exercise[s] shall rest within the discretion of the graduating senior class, with the advice and counsel of the senior class principal;
  2. The invocation and benediction, if used, shall be given by a student volunteer; and
  3. Consistent with the principle of equal liberty of conscience, the invocation and benediction shall be non-sectarian and non-proselytizing in nature.

After the Supreme Court remanded the case, the circuit court ruled that "Clear Creek does not unconstitutionally endorse religion if it submits the decision of graduation invocation content . . . to the majority vote of the senior class." In reaching this decision, the court relied on a previous U.S. Supreme Court case which created a "test" for determining when the Establishment Clause is violated. [Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U. S. 602 (1971)] This so-called "Lemon test" consists of three parts:

  1. The law in question (like the Clear Creek school board resolution) must have a secular (nonreligious) purpose.
  2. The law must neither promote or inhibit religion.
  3. The law must involve no "excessive government entanglement with religion."

The circuit court found that the Clear Creek resolution had a "solemnizing" but not religious purpose, was non-sectarian, and did not excessively entangle government (school) officials with religion. The circuit court also concluded that, because graduating seniors decided to conduct an invocation and/or benediction, their participation in such exercises would be voluntary. [Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, 977 F.2d 963 (5th Cir. 1992)]

These are only a few cases involving the conflict between the religion clause and the establishment clause of the first amendment. Opinion in these cases clearly indicates that this conflict remains a complex and difficult issue to adjudicate.

For Writing and Discussion

  1. Do you think invocations and benedictions have a place at public school graduation ceremonies? Why or why not?
  2. What similarities and what differences are there between the Rhode Island and Texas school graduation cases?


Student-Led Religious Exercises

This role-playing activity is a moot court which simulates a U.S. Supreme Court hearing in the case of Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District.

A. Form the class into five role groups:

  1. The First Amendment Defenders (a fictitious organization) will challenge the Clear Creek School Board's resolution as a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause.
  2. The Senior Class Minority, composed of those students who do not want any graduation religious exercises, will also challenge the school board's resolution.
  3. The Clear Creek School Board will argue that its resolution is not in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
  4. The Senior Class Majority, composed of those students who want an invocation and benediction at their graduation, will also argue in favor of the school board's resolution.
  5. The U.S. Supreme Court will read and listen to the arguments of the other groups, ask them questions during their oral arguments, and decide this question: Does the Clear Creek School Board resolution violate the First Amendment?

B. Preparation

  1. Groups #1 and #3 should concentrate on the legal arguments for and against the question of the case. Both groups should study the First Amendment and the Clear Creek School Board Resolution. Both should also frame their arguments in terms of the Lemon test, and prepare written and oral briefs.
  2. Group #1 should study the decision in the Lee v. Weisman case, and may wish to research School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U. S. 203 (1963).
  3. Group #3 should study the decision in the Lamb's Chapel case, and may wish to research Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U. S. 602 (1983).
  4. Groups #2 and #4 should concentrate on the moral and practical arguments about why invocations and benedictions at Clear Creek graduations should or should not be allowed. Both groups should study the school board's resolution. These groups should also prepare written and oral briefs.

C. Moot Court

  1. Groups #1 through #4 should submit written briefs to the Supreme Court justices so that they may read them before the moot court session.
  2. Each group should be given an equal amount of time to present its oral arguments to the Supreme Court.
  3. After the oral arguments have been completed, each group should be given a few minutes to present a summary of its main points to the Supreme Court.
  4. The Supreme Court will finally meet to decide the question of the case. Each justice will then announce and explain his or her decision to the rest of the class.



Constitutional Rights Foundation
is a member of: 
crn footer


Terms of Use Privacy Notice  |  Donor Privacy Policy  |  Teach Democracy (formerly Constitutional Rights Foundation), 601 S. Kingsley Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90005 | 213.487.5590 | 

© 2024 Teach Democracy®.  All Rights Reserved.

Joomla3 Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux