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A family’s journey from a school prayer dispute to the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court Building in the nation's capital. June 24 will be the 30th anniversary of Lee v. Weisman, the high court's 5-4 decision prohibiting clergy from leading graduation prayer in public schools. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

It was Merith Weisman’s middle school graduation ceremony, and a Baptist minister stood at the front of the auditorium, announcing, “Please rise and praise Jesus for the accomplishments of these children today.” The Weismans, who are Jewish, exchanged glances. Should they stand?

Merith, in a teal dress and new black patent high heels, sat in front with the other graduates of the public Bishop Middle School in Providence, R.I. She whispered to a friend, “I don’t think that’s legal.”

Sitting in the middle of the auditorium, Merith’s parents, Daniel and Vivian Weisman, were having a similar conversation as her younger sister, 11-year-old Debbie, looked to her parents for guidance.

Daniel, a social work professor at Rhode Island College, whispered to his wife, “They can’t do this, can they?”

“No, but they are,” responded Vivian, who was confident the school was in the wrong. She was assistant executive director of the city’s Jewish Community Center and had for years volunteered on a committee of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island concerning church-state issues.

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It was 1986. The Supreme Court had ruled against allowing prayer in public schools in the early 1960s. The line, in Vivian’s view, was clear, and the school had just stepped right over it.

The Weismans, though, stood during the prayer. Daniel and Vivian didn’t want to draw attention away from the graduates. But afterward, they spoke to a school administrator and sent the school a letter — seemingly benign actions that would soon place them at the center of the nation’s culture wars and in front of the Supreme Court.

“I always felt like this was something that happened to us, not something we did,” said Merith Weisman, now a director of community engagement at Sonoma State University in California. “They wrote a letter. That’s all, and it just took on a life of its own, and we got dragged along. Providence kept appealing.”

June 24 marked the 30th anniversary of the family’s triumph in the landmark Supreme Court ruling Lee v. Weisman, a 5-4 decision prohibiting clergy from leading graduation prayer in public schools. It came three days before the Supreme Court ruled Monday on a new school prayer case that could reverse some of the protections from school-backed religious displays that the Weisman case enshrined.

In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the court sided Monday with a former football coach in Bremerton, Wash., Joseph Kennedy, who claimed the school district unjustly fired him for praying at midfield after each game. Kennedy contended he was exercising his right to free exercise of religion. The school district argued the coach was a representative of the school whose public prayers put pressure on players to join him.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, writing for fellow conservatives in the 6 to 3 decision, said Kennedy’s prayers were protected by the Constitution’s guarantees of free speech and free religious exercise, arguing, “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”

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Like the Kennedy case, the Weismans’ saga began with actions they never thought would make national headlines.

After Merith Weisman’s graduation, her parents approached the assistant principal in the hall. Vivian said the invocation did not belong in a public school. The assistant principal replied that he did not know what the pastor was going to say and offered no reassurance that prayers would be eliminated from future graduations. So Daniel mailed a letter to Bishop Middle School administrators, noting the apparent violation of the separation of church and state.

“Part of my Jewish identity and civic identity is you don’t force religion on people, and you don’t force other people’s religion on people,” said Daniel in a recent interview. “I felt violated because I had to stand and bow my head.”

No one at the school responded to the letter. As Debbie’s graduation approached in 1989, Vivian periodically mentioned her concerns at PTO meetings. One evening, during parent-teacher night at Bishop, a teacher approached the Weismans in the hall and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. and Mrs. Weisman, you won’t have a problem. We got you a rabbi.”

After speaking with Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, the parents decided to sue, as long as their daughters approved and the school district still refused to stop the prayers. The teens were in.

With only a week left before Debbie’s graduation, the parents met with the school’s new principal, Robert E. Lee, who did not dissuade them from suing. “My feeling was, there would be nothing wrong with the ceremony and I made the decision to go ahead,” Lee later told a C-SPAN interviewer.

Four days before graduation, the ACLU, on behalf of the family, sued Lee and Providence schools in the U.S. District Court in Providence and sought a temporary restraining order to prevent prayers at the district’s upcoming graduations. The chief judge denied the family’s request because he wanted more time to review the case.

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On graduation day, June 20, newspapers, TV and radio reporters gathered at the school. Rabbi Leslie Gutterman of Temple Beth-El in Providence delivered the prayers to the 127 graduates. He said he made the prayers nonsectarian. His benediction, as one of the Supreme Court justices would later point out, included a passage from the Book of Micah. Gutterman, now 79 and retired, said he saw nothing wrong with the prayers he delivered.

Daniel Weisman talked to the gaggle of reporters outside. “This is the kids’ day. Weren’t they great? It’s not up to me anymore. It’s up to the courts,” he recalled saying.

In January 1990, the chief judge of the Providence federal court ruled that prayer at public school graduations violated the First Amendment. The Providence School Board announced it would appeal. That July, the Weismans won again in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit in Boston. Three months later, the school board appealed again.

The administration of President George H.W. Bush and a handful of states sought to persuade the Supreme Court to hear the case. Utah’s State Board of Education even offered $10,000 to pay for Providence’s legal costs. “The machinations that went into the appeal — this whole Utah thing, it was just sort of stunning to see what was going on beneath the surface,” the ACLU’s Brown said.

In March 1991, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and the family, as it did every time its case made the news, received hate mail and threatening phone calls. Debbie, who often opened the mail, remembered one letter that read, “Hitler should have finished the job.”

After the 1990 ruling, all Providence schools stopped graduation prayer. The principal, Lee, did not hide his disappointment in his interview with C-SPAN. “It’s not so much a religious message but it’s an inspirational message,” he said.

At the Supreme Court oral arguments on Nov. 6, 1991, ACLU-appointed attorney Sandra Blanding squared off against the lawyers representing Providence: Charles Cooper, a former assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration, and Kenneth Starr, then the U.S. solicitor general. In his 2002 book “First Among Equals, The Supreme Court in American Life,” Starr wrote of his involvement, “I thought it would prove to be terribly important for the country and its traditions.”

When the Weisman family entered the Supreme Court for the oral arguments, it was with a sense of awe. Debbie thought the nine justices’ chairs looked like thrones.

Cooper argued that because students do not have to attend graduation ceremonies, they aren’t coerced into displays of religion. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who Cooper and others thought would support ceremonial prayer, poked holes at that notion. “In our culture, a graduation is a key event in the young person’s life,” he said.

Writing for the majority, Kennedy said schools placed “subtle and indirect public and peer pressure on attending students to stand as a group or maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction.”

Bush bemoaned the decision, saying in a statement, “The court has unnecessarily cast away the venerable and proper American tradition of non-sectarian prayer at public celebrations.”

The Weismans held a party at their home — at 3:55 p.m., or five to four, a reference to the 5-4 ruling — and did a media circuit. Family members appeared on “Nightline,” CNN and “Good Morning America.” Debbie was asked to write an essay about her experiences for Seventeen magazine. On “The Jerry Springer Show,” she watched in horror from the audience as her father, sitting onstage with Springer, was booed by the people around her.

She has no regrets, though. “We made a difference for the people who couldn’t speak up,” Debbie said.

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