Much Ado over Graduation Prayer

By McCarthy, Martha M.; Barber, Larry W. | Phi Delta Kappan, October 1993 | Go to article overview
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Much Ado over Graduation Prayer

McCarthy, Martha M., Barber, Larry W., Phi Delta Kappan

Despite a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that seems to preclude prayers at public school graduation ceremonies, Ms. McCarthy notes that school districts are finding ways to circumvent the ban.

In June 1993 a school district that had traditionally included an invocation and benediction in its high school commencement exercises stopped the practice. At the graduation ceremony, however, when the seniors were asked to be seated at the end of the processional, they did not comply. Instead, they remained standing and recited the Lord's Prayer. The audience responded with loud applause. The superintendent had heard that the students (with some urging from local clergy) were planning the "spontaneous" prayer, but neither he nor any other school official endorsed the activity or participated in the religious observance.

If the graduation exercises in this midwestern school district last spring were atypical, the renewed interest in graduation prayer was not. In school districts across the U.S. the issue of graduation prayer stirred strong emotions during the 1992-93 school year. Many school boards and administrators grappled with how they could avoid a lawsuit while satisfying their communities, which strongly supported invocations and benedictions at public school graduation ceremonies.

This issue became so volatile because of the Supreme Court's 1992 Lee v. Weisman decision, which interpreted the establishment clause of the First Amendment as precluding school-sponsored graduation prayers.[1] In this article, I will briefly review the Weisman ruling, other recent decisions pertaining to graduation prayer, and the options still available to public school districts.


The Supreme Court's 1992 decision focused on a public school policy in Providence, Rhode Island, that permitted principals to invite members of the clergy to give invocations and benedictions at middle school and high school graduation ceremonies. Daniel Weisman challenged the policy because of discomfort he experienced when a Baptist minister delivered the invocation and benediction at his older daughter's middle school graduation. At the end of the ceremony the minister asked the audience to stand for a moment of silence to give thanks to Jesus Christ. This invitation made Weisman, who is Jewish, feel "stripped-naked, humiliated, and the victim of a psychological beating."[2] Weisman voiced his objections to school officials, and, when his younger daughter was ready to graduate from middle school in 1989, he asked that no prayers be included in the graduation ceremony.

The school refused to abandon its policy, but the principal told Weisman that a rabbi would be asked to deliver the invocation and benediction. The principal advised the rabbi that the prayers should be nonsectarian and gave him a copy of Guidelines for Civic Occasions, a pamphlet with recommendations on public prayers at civic ceremonies. Weisman was not placated, because he wanted a nonreligious ceremony; he did not want his faith imposed on others. After Weisman failed to secure a temporary restraining order prohibiting the graduation prayers, he and his wife attended the graduation ceremony in which their daughter participated. However, since invocations and benedictions would probably be used when their daughter graduated from high school, Weisman filed an amended complaint seeking a permanent injunction against the inclusion of such devotionals at future graduations.

The Rhode Island federal district court held that invocations and benedictions in public school graduation ceremonies violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government action respecting an establishment of religion. The court applied the three-part Lemon test, evaluating whether the challenged government action had a secular (nonreligious) purpose, had a primary effect that neither advanced nor impeded religion, and avoided excessive government entanglement with religion.

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