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Administration Argues for School Graduation Prayers

February 22, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration urged the Supreme Court on Friday to allow prayers at public school graduations, arguing that courts have gone too far in ousting religion from public ceremonies.

Justice Department lawyers, stepping into a dispute from Providence, R.I., said schools do not violate the constitutionally required separation of church and state when they allow guest speakers to deliver invocations or benedictions at graduation ceremonies.

The high court since 1962 has banned organized prayer sessions from public schools. But the Justice Department’s ″friend-of-the-court″ brief submitted in the Providence case said prayers at graduation ceremonies are different.

″Such ceremonies typically occur but once a year. They are addressed not to children alone but to families as a whole which are ... a natural bulwark against any coercion,″ the government lawyers said.

″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 educational mission,″ they added.

Pending before the court is an appeal by school officials in Providence from lower court decisions barring invocations and benedictions that acknowledge God.

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

Deborah is now a student at Classical High School in Providence.

Weisman’s lawsuit led to rulings that permanently barred such prayers in Providence’s public schools.

In the brief filed Friday, government lawyers urged the court to scrap in some cases the three-part test it has used repeatedly since 1971 in trying to decide whether some governmental practice violates that part of the Constitution banning ″an establishment of religion.″

Under that 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.

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 a non-coercive, ceremonial acknowledgement of the heritage of a deeply religious people.″

They said the three-part test ″has been the source of widespread confusion and deep division among the lower courts″ and has forced them to deny the nation’s religious heritage.

The Justice Department brief noted that the Supreme Court in 1983 upheld Congress’ practice of opening its daily sessions with a prayer, and that the high court’s public sessions always begin with the invocation ″God save the United States and this honorable court.″

There is no indication when the court will say whether it will grant or deny the appeal by the Providence school officials.

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

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