WASHINGTON -- By the thinnest of margins, the Supreme Court yesterday barred public school officials from including prayers of any sort in graduation ceremonies or other school exercises.
Even if a prayer is written specifically to avoid mentioning the tenets of any religious faith or denomination, school officials may not arrange to have such a prayer said at official ceremonies, the court ruled in a surprisingly broad opinion written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in the 5-4 ruling.
The decision nullified a practice of praying that has been a commonplace since the first public high school graduation ceremony in 1868 in Connecticut.
The court majority held firmly to deeply controversial rulings, datingto 1962, that have banned prayers in public school classrooms and assemblies, and extended those rulings to all other school-sponsored events.
"Our precedents do not permit school officials to assist in composing prayers as an incident to a formal exercise of their students," the court declared.
But the ruling went beyond merely forbidding officials to take part in writing such a prayer: It made it clear that they may not arrange for prayers -- of any kind -- to be said at school functions by a clergy member.
Thus, the court ruled unconstitutional the arrangements for a June 1989 graduation ceremony at a Providence, R.I., middle school.
Rabbi Leslie Gutterman of Temple Beth El made repeated entreaties to God as he prayed at the commencement for the Nathan Bishop Middle School, a public school in Providence. A member of that class, 14-year-old Deborah Weisman, and her father successfully challenged the rabbi's prayers in lower courts.
Ratifying their victory yesterday, the Supreme Court provided a stern rebuff to those who have been campaigning for years to persuade the court to let religion back into the public schools.
The key to the ruling was that students would feel "psychological coercion" and pressure by having to sit or stand through a prayer said under the school's auspices at graduation.
That form of coercion, Justice Kennedy wrote, meant that a student who did not want to be a part of a religious ritual "was left with no alternative but to submit. . . . The Constitution forbids the state to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school graduation."
The "design of the Constitution is that preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere," he said.
As a courtroom full of public spectators and a sprinkling of lawyers listened in rapt silence, Mr. Kennedy read with passion for almost eight minutes from the soaring rhetoric in his written opinion.
When he had finished, dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia took a turn, reciting informally, even colloquially for nearly five minutes from his separate opinion.
Justice Scalia disputed the majority's main points, then read a passage from his opinion in which he argued that the nation's founders considered collective prayer to be an "important unifying mechanism."
One of the ruling's most important facets went unmentioned in the courtroom and emerged clearly only in the full text of Justice Kennedy's 20-page opinion for the majority: The court rebuffed a Bush administration plea to reconsider the basic constitutional doctrine that governs the separation of government from religion.
The graduation prayer case, Justice Kennedy wrote, could be decided on the basis of past rulings dealing only with school prayers. Thus, there was no need for the court to take a new look at the 21-year-old, three-part formula usually used to judge when the constitutional line between officialdom and faith has been crossed improperly.
Under that formula, government ties to religion are forbidden if they are based on a religious purpose, if they promote or $H interfere with religion, or if they get the government "entangled" with religion.
The Bush administration, before the Supreme Court had even agreed to hear the Providence case, urged the justices to take that case and use it as a vehicle for abandoning that 1971 formula. The administration urged a new a constitutional doctrine: the government may get involved with religion so long as it does not coerce someone into believing or not believing some religious belief.
Those who favored the "coercion" approach were optimistic, partly because Justice Kennedy had seemed to embrace that approach in past cases, and partly because two new justices, David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas, had joined the court since the last use of the 1971 formula and might help make a new majority for the "coercion" test.
Yesterday, the "coercion" view received the open support of Justice Thomas -- in his first expression of views in a religion case -- as he joined in Justice Scalia's dissenting opinion. That opinion, taking the constitutional view suggested by the Bush administration, also had the support of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Byron R. White.
Those four justices were offset by four others -- Justice Souter, also giving his views on religion and the law for the first time; and Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Sandra Day O'Connor and John Paul Stevens -- who expressly rejected the idea that the government would violate the "establishment of religion" clause only if it engaged in religious coercion. The four held to the view, keyed to the 1971 formula, that government acts unconstitutionally whenever it seems to sponsor or endorse religion, even without coercion.
The lineup of four justices on each side of the issue gave Mr. Kennedy the deciding vote. Presumably because of that, he wound up with the assignment to write the court's main opinion to say why the Providence ceremony was unconstitutional. But the Kennedy opinion stressed several times that the court was dealing only with religion in the public schools -- thus, leaving open the possibility that he might help make a majority to lay down the "coercion" test in some future case.