ON June 29, 1989, in Providence, Rhode Island, Deborah Weisman graduated from Nathan Bishop Middle School. "God of the free, hope of the brave," Rabbi Leslie Gutterman offered in the graduation's ceremonial prayer, "for the legacy of America where diversity is celebrated and the rights of minorities are protected, we thank you. May these young men and women grow up to enrich it." Deborah's father, who had objected to the inclusion of the prayer, sued the school's principal, Robert E. Lee. By the now familiar margin of 5-4, in 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Weismans.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy applied the First Amendment's prohibition of an established religion. The prayer was nonsectarian, Kennedy acknowledged, and anything but an effort by Christians to impose their faith on religious minorities. Nonetheless, he said, government was involved in all its aspects. Not only was the prayer delivered at an official school function but its very inclusiveness was the result of guidelines supplied to all clergy by school authorities. "The undeniable fact," Kennedy continued, "is that the school district's supervision and control of a ... school graduation ceremony places public pressure, as well as peer pressure, on attending students to stand as a group.... This pressure, though subtle and indirect, can be as real as any overt compulsion." America is a society committed to the principle of individual freedom, and by forcing Deborah Weisman to participate in a ritual that violated her conscience, the prayer interfered with her rights.
All this was too much for Justice Antonin Scalia. Morality has always played a role in the public life of America, he argued in dissent, and because religion is the traditional source of that morality, the Court's decision represented one more step away from the faith of the Founders. In Scalia's view, the majority had succumbed to a kind of coercion inflation, equating something as harmless as a nondenominational prayer with "coercion of religious orthodoxy ... by force of law and threat of penalty." In words seemingly designed to be provoking, Scalia wrote that the Court's opinion treated religion as a "purely personal avocation that can be indulged entirely in secret, like pornography, in the privacy of one's room."