Prayer at Public School Graduation

Case Summary: Lee v. Weisman (1992)

For many years, the Providence (R.I.) School Committee and Superintendent have permitted, but not directed, school principals to include invocations and benedictions in the graduation ceremonies of the city’s public junior and senior high schools. As a result, some public middle and high schools in Providence have included invocations and benedictions in their graduation ceremonies.

The invocations and benedictions are not written or delivered by public school employees, but by members of the clergy invited to participate in these ceremonies for that purpose. The schools provide the clergy with guidelines prepared by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. These guidelines stress inclusiveness and sensitivity in authorizing nonsectarian prayer for public civic ceremonies. The clergy who have delivered these prayers in recent years have included ministers of various Christian denominations as well as rabbis.

Attendance at graduation ceremonies is voluntary, with parents and friends of the students invited to attend. Middle school ceremonies are held at the school, while high school ceremonies are typically held off campus.

Daniel Weisman’s daughter, Deborah, graduated from Nathan Bishop Middle School, a public junior high school in Providence, in June 1989. Rabbi Leslie Gutterman from a local synagogue in Providence delivered the invocation and benediction at the ceremony (see below). The principal provided Rabbi Gutterman with a pamphlet entitled “Guidelines for Civic Occasions,” which contains recommendations for prayers at nonreligious civic ceremonies.

Daniel Weisman, the father of Deborah, objected to the invocation and benediction. He believed he had good reason to be concerned. Three years before, when he attended his older daughter’s graduation from the same school, a Baptist minister had presided over the invocation and benediction. The minister had enthusiastically led the audience in prayer and ended the program by having the audience stand in a moment of silence to give thanks to Jesus Christ. Mr. Weisman, who is Jewish, had felt terribly uncomfortable and thought it was inappropriate for a public school to sponsor such a prayer.

Afterward he wrote a letter of complaint to school officials, but he received no response. When it came time for Deborah to graduate, he decided to renew his complaint. He was told that since a rabbi would be giving the invocation and benediction at the ceremony, he should not have any concern.

Believing that the school was violating the First Amendment, Weisman asked the local federal court to issue an order to prevent the public school from including invocations and benedictions at the upcoming graduation. In the papers he filed in court, he contended that inviting religious leaders to provide the invocation and benediction at public school graduations violated the separation of church and state required by the First Amendment.

The court denied the motion because they did not have adequate time to consider it before the scheduled event was to take place. Deborah attended the ceremony with her family and heard the rabbi’s invocation and benediction.

One month later, Mr. Weisman returned to court with an amended complaint. In court, the school officials maintained that (1) the rabbi’s message, rather than being a prayer, was inspirational and appropriate for the important event; (2) for a prayer to violate the Establishment Clause, students would have to be coerced into praying; (3) attendance at graduation ceremonies is voluntary and students could choose not to come if they found the prayer offensive; and (4) prayers at civic occasions have a long history of acceptance in our country. Prayers are given at the opening of state legislative sessions and federal courts open with “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

The trial court ruled in Weisman’s favor, issuing an order barring public schools from inviting religious leaders to give prayers at future graduation ceremonies. That decision was upheld on appeal, with one judge dissenting. The case proceeded to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rabbi Gutterman’s Invocation

God of the Free, Hope of the Brave:

For the legacy of America where diversity is celebrated and the rights of minorities are protected, we thank You. May these young men and women grow up to enrich it.

For the liberty of America, we thank You. May these new graduates grow up to guard it.

The political process of America in which all its citizens may participate, for its court system where all can seek justice, we thank You. May those we honor here this morning always turn to it in trust.

The destiny of America, we thank You. May the graduates of Nathan Bishop Middle School so live that they might help to share it.

May our aspirations for our country and for these young people, who are our hope for the future, be richly fulfilled.

—Amen

Rabbi Gutterman’s Benediction

O God, we are grateful to You for having endowed us with the capacity for learning which we have celebrated on this joyous commencement.

Happy families give thanks for seeing their children achieve an important milestone. Send your blessings upon the teachers and administrators who helped prepare them.

The graduates now need strength and guidance for the future; help them to understand that we are not complete with academic knowledge alone. We must each strive to fulfill what You require of us all: To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.

We give thanks to You, Lord, for keeping us alive, sustaining us and allowing us to reach this special, happy occasion.

— Amen

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