Deborah Weisman graduated from Nathan Bishop Middle School, a public school in Providence,

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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: INVOCATION "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 fulfilled. "AMEN" BENEDICTION "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 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 [sic] require of us all [sic]: To do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly. "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.


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