Supreme Court Bars Prayers at Public School Graduations
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Supreme Court Bars Prayers at Public School Graduations

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Jewish groups by and large have hailed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Wednesday forbidding the recitation during public school graduation ceremonies of prayers containing God’s name or biblical passages.

The 5-4 decision closed a case that originated when a Jewish family protested against the invocation of God by a rabbi officiating at a junior high school graduation in Rhode Island. The justices ruled that such practices violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation of church and state.

The decision was hailed as a great victory for religious freedom by secular Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League, and by the Reform movement too.

Orthodox organizations, which have long opposed bans on religious activity in public schools, expressed disappointment with the ruling.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case, Lee vs. Weisman, last Nov. 6. Jewish groups concerned with maintaining strict separation of church and state feared that the court, with its conservative majority, might lower the constitutional barriers to governmental involvement in religion.

Orthodox groups, on the other hand, looked forward to such a move as a way of bolstering their long-fought campaign for government aid to parochial schools.

The Bush administration, too, wanted the court to abolish the 20-year-old Lemon test, established by the Supreme Court’s 1971 Lemon vs. Kurtzman ruling, which determines when public involvement with religion is unconstitutional.

It argued that such involvement should be barred only when the government attempts to coerce religious activity.


The case ruled on Wednesday had its beginnings in 1986, when a Baptist minister officiated at the eighth grade graduation of Merith Weisman, a daughter of Daniel Weisman, a professor at Rhode Island College in Providence.

The minister asked the audience to “stand up and thank Jesus Christ for the students’ accomplishments.”

When the Weisman family complained to the school, the school made no reply.

In 1989, shortly before Merith’s sister Deborah was to graduate from junior high school, her parents asked the school to “prevent the same thing from happening.”

The school, saying it did not want to “break with tradition,” provided a rabbi for the graduation’s benediction and invocation.

“But this didn’t solve anything, it only defeated our point,” Deborah Weisman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a telephone interview Wednesday.

The point was that no clergy, Jewish or other otherwise, should officiate at public school graduation exercises, she said.

The Weisman family took the case to the American Civil Liberties Union. A federal district court in Rhode Island ruled in their favor in 1989.

The school board appealed the decision in 1990. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston affirmed the lower court ruling, arguing that a rabbi’s mention of God during an invocation and benediction violated the First Amendment clause barring government establishment of religion.

The case was taken to the Supreme Court last year.

The ADL filed a brief urging the court to prohibit prayer in public schools and to reaffirm the Lemon test, which requires that for a religious practice to be considered constitutional, it must have a secular purpose, must neither advance nor inhibit religion, and must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.


The Weismans’ position also was backed in briefs filed by the AJCommittee, AJCongress, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and numerous Christian, educational and civil liberties groups.

COLPA, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, which represents Orthodox Jewish organizations, filed a brief in support of the Providence school board. It argued that the Lemon test has been used by those intolerant of religion, specifically in unsuccessful challenges to the laws regulating kosher food.

David Zwiebel, general counsel and director of government affairs of Agudath Israel of America, said Wednesday that the Orthodox saw the Weisman case as “an opportunity to re-evaluate and reconsider the Lemon test.”

“That test has not worked very well,” he said. “It has little consistency and has led to nonsensical decisions. The Supreme Court decision, which reaffirmed the Lemon test, was disappointing. We had hoped it would be replaced,” he said.

But other Jewish groups welcomed the decision and saw it as a victory in their campaign against prayer in the public schools.

Henry Siegman, executive director of the AJCongress, declared, “Today’s decision banning prayers at public school graduations is a welcome reaffirmation that the nation’s public schools may not serve as surrogate houses of worship.”

Samuel Rabinove, legal director for the American Jewish Committee, said he was “euphoric” at the news. “We never expected the court to come down on our side,” he said.

“We believe that all faiths will flourish best without government intrusion, however benign,” the AJCommittee said in a formal statement.


Jess Hordes, Washington director of the ADL, said, “This is a significant victory for all who are supportive of religious liberty, particularly religious minorities.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, called the decision “a reaffirmation of our fundamental right to freedom from state-imposed religion.”

The initiator of the case, Daniel Weisman, called the court’s ruling “tremendous,” but added it was a “paper victory” that is meaningless until people “nudge school districts to uphold the law.”

Even the rabbi who delivered the invocation in question seemed pleased.

“The decision is in the best interest of all civil libertarians,” said Rabbi Leslie Gutterman of Temple Beth-El in Providence. “That the official posture of the government be neutral bodes well for diverse faiths.”

(Contributing to this report were JTA student intern Yafitte Bendory and Cynthia Mann of States News Service.)

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