High court to rule on prayer in school School board criticized for prayer appeal.

March 19, 1991|By New York Times

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The 1986 graduation ceremony at Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence was going smoothly until the invocation speaker began thanking Jesus Christ for the students' accomplishments.

Daniel and Vivian Weisman, whose daughter, Merith, stood among the graduates, called the school superintendent the next day to complain, arguing that graduation prayers violated the Constitution's guarantee of separation of church and state.

Three years later, the Weismans learned that a rabbi would be offering prayers at the graduation of their younger daughter, Deborah.

The Weismans are Jewish, but they objected again, this time to the school principal. They said the prayers could be offensive to NTC some non-Jewish students at the school on Providence's affluent East Side.

Still, the Providence school board allowed Rabbi Leslie Gutterman to pray aloud. "O God, we are grateful for the learning which we have celebrated on this joyous commencement," the rabbi said. "We give thanks to you, Lord, for keeping us alive, sustaining us and allowing us to reach this special, happy occasion."

Shortly afterward Weisman, with help from the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the school board.

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

In an interview, Vivian Weisman, an assistant executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Rhode Island, said: "We see prayer in public schools in any form as being very divisive. It really cuts out the minorities for whom the public school system has been a gateway for full inclusion in our society."

Deborah Weisman, now 16 and a sophomore at Classical High School in Providence, agreed.

"It is against the law," said Miss Weisman, who was voted Most School Spirited of her graduating class at Nathan Bishop. "This is a basic First Amendment right and I think they are wasting a lot of money on something that should be an opened and closed case."

Daniel Weisman, who is a professor of social work at Rhode Island College, is on a 15-week research sabbatical in Seattle and could not be reached for comment.

Since the suit began, two lower courts, ruling in the Weismans' favor, have barred mention of a deity in graduation prayers here.

School officials here have argued that the prayers are a matter of tradition for the city's 21,000-student system.

The Weisman suit has done more than stir up conflicting views among parents about prayer in the Providence school system.

Earlier this month, Councilman Joshua N. Fenton attacked the school board's continued appeals as "frivolous" and "really a waste of taxpayers' money."

The case is expected to cost the city $25,000 to $50,000, school officials have said. The Utah Department of Education, which is involved in a similar case, has pledged $10,000 to support the board's appeal.

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