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Court Agrees to Hear Case on Prayers at School Graduations

March 18, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today agreed to decide whether prayers should be allowed as part of the graduation ceremonies at public schools.

The court said it will review rulings that barred guest speakers from delivering invocations and benedictions at high school and junior high school commencement ceremonies in Providence, R.I.

Lower courts said such prayers violate the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

In the appeal acted on today, Providence school officials said acknowledging God at such times does not amount to a governmental endorsement of religion.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of a Providence family that objected to prayers at their daughter’s junior high school graduation.

″I’m very disappointed,″ said Steven Brown, the chapter’s executive director. ″I think agreeing to hear this case opens up the distinct possibility that the principle of separation of church and state may get a drubbing.″

But school board attorney Joseph A. Rotella said the issue was ripe for Supreme Court review.

In other orders today, the Supreme Court:

-Ordered the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to restudy its ruling that the manufacturer of Buster Brown shoes was guilty of illegal racial bias when it fired a white supervisor at a Missouri warehouse while keeping a black supervisor who had less seniority. The order appeared to suggest the appeals court consider limiting the scope of a key civil rights law enacted primarily to protect freed slaves after the Civil War.

-Sent back to lower courts for further study seven disputes over punitive- damages awards, including cases of damages won by former members of the Hare Krishna religion and the Church of Scientology. The court told lower courts to restudy each of the seven cases in light of its decision on punitive damages earlier this month in which the justices refused to set constitutional limits on punitive damages in personal injury lawsuits.

-Refused to let Connecticut authorities file new manslaughter charges against a drunken driver who had pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of vehicular assault for running over a 13-year-old boy two years ago. Susan Nelson pleaded guilty to the lesser crime in April 1988. The victim, Eric Zimmerman, died the following October.

-Refused to reinstate a libel lawsuit against the Corpus Christi Times in Texas by a former state social worker, Elda Villarreal, who says a false 1985 article destroyed her life. The court let stand rulings that defeated her suit, rejecting her argument that she was wrongly found to be a ″public official″ who could win the suit only by proving the article was published with knowledge or reckless disregard of its falsity.

In the prayer at graduation ceremonies case, the high court since 1962 has banned organized prayer sessions from public schools. But Providence school officials and the Bush administration told the justices that prayers at graduation ceremonies are different.

The school officials’ appeal called such prayers part of ″the longstanding and broad tradition of official acknowledgement of religious values in the public life of the nation.″

The appeal noted that invocations and benedictions are recited in state legislatures across the nation and in the Congress, and that all Supreme Court public sessions begin with the invocation ″God save the United States and this honorable court.″

Justice Department lawyers urged the scrapping in some cases of a three- part test the court has used repeatedly since 1971 in deciding whether a governmental practice violates that part of the Constitution banning ″an establishment of religion.″

Under the test, the governmental practice is struck down if it does not have a secular purpose, advances or promotes religion, or fosters excessive entanglement with religion.

The government lawyers said the court should ″jettison the framework erected by (the three-part test) in circumstances where, as here, the practice under assault is noncoercive, ceremonial acknowledgement of the heritage of a deeply religious people.″

″Whatever special concerns about subtle coercion may be present in the classroom setting - where inculcation is the name of the game - they do not carry over into the commencement setting, which is more properly understood as a civic ceremony than part of the education mission,″ the government lawyers said.

The prayers in Providence were challenged two years ago by Daniel Weisman when his daughter, Deborah, was a student at Nathan Bishop Junior High School.

Weisman, who practices Judaism, objected when Rabbi Leslie Gutterman was scheduled to give an invocation and benediction at his daughter’s graduation ceremony.

Weisman’s lawyers said he is ″opposed to and offended by inclusion of prayer in public school ... graduation ceremonies.″

A federal judge and the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Weisman.

Weisman, a Rhode Island College professor, was on sabbatical in Olympia, Wash., and could not immediately be reached for comment. His wife, Vivian, said she was concerned about the high court’s decision but was optimistic the family would prevail.

The case is Lee vs. Weisman, 90-1014.

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