Deborah Weisman graduated from Nathan Bishop Middle School, a public school in Providence,
Deborah Weisman graduated from Nathan Bishop Middle
School, a public school in Providence, at a formal ceremony
in June 1989. She was about 14 years old. For many years
it has been the policy of the Providence School Committee
and the Superintendent of Schools to permit principals to
invite members of the clergy to give invocations and
benedictions at middle school and high school graduations.
Many, but not all, of the principals elected to include
prayers as part of the graduation ceremonies. Acting for
himself and his daughter, Deborah's father, Daniel Weisman,
objected to any prayers at Deborah's middle school
graduation, but to no avail. The school principal, petitioner
Robert E. Lee, invited a rabbi to deliver prayers at the
graduation exercises for Deborah's class. Rabbi Leslie
Gutterman, of the Temple Beth El in Providence, accepted.
It has been the custom of Providence school officials to
provide invited clergy with a pamphlet entitled "Guidelines
for Civic Occasions," prepared by the National Conference
of Christians and Jews. The Guidelines recommend that
public prayers at nonsectarian civic ceremonies be composed
with "inclusiveness and sensitivity," though they acknowl-
edge that "[p]rayer of any kind may be inappropriate on
some civic occasions." App. 20-21. The principal gave
Rabbi Gutterman the pamphlet before the graduation and
advised him the invocation and benediction should be
nonsectarian. Agreed Statement of Facts -17, id., at 13.
Rabbi Gutterman's prayers were as follows:
"God of the Free [sic], Hope of the Brave [sic]:
"For the legacy of America where diversity is cele-
brated and the rights of minorities are protected, we [sic]
thank You [sic]. May these young men and women grow up
to enrich it.
"For the liberty of America, we [sic] thank You [sic]. May
these new graduates grow up to guard it.
"For the political process of America in which all its
citizens may participate, for its court system where all
may seek justice we [sic] thank You [sic]. May those we
honor this morning always turn to it in trust.
"For the destiny of America we [sic] thank You [sic]. 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
"O God, we are grateful to You [sic] 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 [sic] blessings
upon the teachers and administrators who helped
"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 [sic] require of
us all [sic]: To do justly, to love mercy, to walk
"We give thanks to You [sic], Lord [sic], for keeping
us [sic] alive, sustaining us [sic] and allowing us [sic]
to reach this special, happy occasion.
"AMEN" Id., at 22-23.
The record in this case is sparse in many respects, and
we are unfamiliar with any fixed custom or practice at
middle school graduations, referred to by the school district
as "promotional exercises." We are not so constrained with
reference to high schools, however. High school graduations
are such an integral part of American cultural life that we
can with confidence describe their customary features,
confirmed by aspects of the record and by the parties'
representations at oral argument. In the Providence school
system, most high school graduation ceremonies are
conducted away from the school, while most middle school
ceremonies are held on school premises. Classical High
School, which Deborah now attends, has conducted its
graduation ceremonies on school premises. Agreed State-
ment of Facts -37, id., at 17. The parties stipulate that
attendance at graduation ceremonies is voluntary. Agreed
Statement of Facts -41, id., at 18. The graduating students
enter as a group in a processional, subject to the direction
of teachers and school officials, and sit together, apart from
their families. We assume the clergy's participation in any
high school graduation exercise would be about what it was
at Deborah's middle school ceremony. There the students
stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and remained standing
during the Rabbi's prayers. Tr. of Oral Arg. 38. Even on
the assumption that there was a respectful moment of
silence both before and after the prayers, the Rabbi's two
presentations must not have extended much beyond a
minute each, if that. We do not know whether he remained
on stage during the whole ceremony, or whether the
students received individual diplomas on stage, or if he
helped to congratulate them.
The school board (and the United States, which supports
it as amicus curiae) argued that these short prayers and
others like them at graduation exercises are of profound
meaning to many students and parents throughout this
country who consider that due respect and acknowledge-
ment for divine guidance and for the deepest spiritual
aspirations of our people ought to be expressed at an event
as important in life as a graduation. We assume this to be
so in addressing the difficult case now before us, for the
significance of the prayers lies also at the heart of Daniel
and Deborah Weisman's case.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank