“Confusing” is how Justice Sandra Day O’Connor described the Supreme Court’s philosophy on religion cases earlier this year. Some of that confusion surfaced last month as the high court heard oral arguments in a landmark commencement-prayer case that could have far-reaching implications in the relationship between church and state.

At issue in Lee v. Weisman is whether a rabbi’s invocation and benediction at a Providence, Rhode Island, high-school graduation ceremony amounted to an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Arguing on behalf of the school, attorney Charles Cooper urged the justices to overturn lower-court decisions that ruled the prayer impermissible. Noting that the Court opened its session with the words “God save the United States and this honorable Court,” Cooper said that if the lower judgments were upheld, then the commencement prayer “pales to the constitutional threat of the opening prayer we just witnessed.”

Attorney Sandra Blanding, representing the family that is challenging the commencement ceremony, argued that the prayers were a “message promoting religion,” something always inappropriate in a public-school setting where children, who are “more impressionable than adults,” are present.

The Bush administration’s solicitor general, Kenneth Starr, also appeared before the Court, arguing in favor of the prayers, which he said were “a far cry from the practices the founding fathers wanted to stop with the establishment clause.” It is, however, the apparent lack of consensus on the Court as to what exactly constitutes a violation of the establishment clause that forms the major issue in the case.

Cooper and ...

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