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
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
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
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.
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.