A conversation with Debbie Weisman, plaintiff in the 1992 school prayer case Lee v. Weisman.


Editor's Note: Debbie Weisman was 14 years old when she and her family challenged official school prayer during public school graduation ceremonies in Providence, R.I. Their case resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling in Lee v. Weisman (1992), declaring school-sponsored graduation prayers a violation of the First Amendment.

Recently Weisman contacted Americans United and asked the organization to convey a message to Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, plaintiffs in an AU-sponsored case challenging the use of mostly Christian prayers before town board meetings in Greece, N.Y.

"THANK YOU for what you are doing," Weisman wrote to Galloway and Stephens. "Stay strong and know that you are supported by many, many people, including thousands you've never met. It may not always feel that way, but we're here and we are proud of, and thankful for, you."

Weisman, who now goes by her married name of Weisman Clasie, lives in Quincy, Mass., and runs a giftwrapping company called Present Moment Studio (presentmomentstudio.com). In a recent interview with Church & State Editor Rob Boston, she offered some reflections on her case and the importance of speaking out.

Boston: I wrote about your case back in 1991, and it was covered extensively in Church & State. But for the benefit of our newer readers, can you please give some background about how the case came to be?

Weisman Clasie: In 1986 at my older sister Merith's eighth-grade graduation from Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, a Baptist minister asked everyone to stand up and thank Jesus Christ for the accomplishments of the students. I had just finished the 5th grade and remember looking to my parents to see what they would do. I was prepared to stay seated, as I was already refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance by that time. They looked surprised, glanced around, looked at each other and, seemingly reluctantly, stood up. I followed their lead, and I think it's fair to say we were all incredibly uncomfortable.

Soon after, my parents contacted the school administration to let them know that the invocation and benediction were inappropriate and, in fact, illegal, as this was a public school. They never received a response.

In 1989, it was my turn to graduate from the 8th grade at the same school. As it was approaching, my 'parents remembered what happened at Merith's graduation. They decided to contact the school in advance with the hopes of preempting any religious aspects to the graduation proceedings. When they did not hear back from the school, they continued to reach out to the principal, Robert Lee, asking for a meeting.

One evening, before hearing back from Mr...

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