Engel v. Vitale
The Issue: Prayer in the Public Schools

Prayer in the Public Schools
Photograph courtesy of Bob Krist / Corbis

Further Internet Study
The Issue Before the Court
Majority Opinion
Dissenting Opinion
Cast Your Vote Online


Before his death, Thomas Jefferson wrote his own epitaph stating for what he wanted the world to remember him. One of his greatest achievements was the passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, which was passed in 1786 after a long and heated debate in the legislature. This piece of legislation provided the basis for the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom as found in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The statute was revolutionary as it represented a new trend in Enlightenment thought. The concept of separation of church and state was not part of British political culture since the British crown was still seen as the head of the Anglican Church. The idea of removing the power of the government from the structure of the Church, known as disestablishment, grew up in the British colonies. By 1776, Virginia had incorporated into its Declaration of Rights a provision for religious freedom. Ten years later, Jefferson's wish had been turned into law:

" An Act For Establishing Religious Freedom... I. Where as Almighty God hath created the mind free... II. be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, not shall it be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

The First Amendment contains language that is very similar to that of the Virginia statute. The opening words of the Bill of Rights state:

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...

This language in the First Amendment, known as the "establishment clause" and the "free exercise clause" respectively, create what Jefferson called "a wall of separation between church and state."

Many traditions had developed within American culture that breached this wall of separation. For example, our coins have "In God We Trust" printed into them, The Pledge of Allegiance still contains the phrase "under God," and many of our governmental ceremonies have prayer as their opening activity. For years, many public school districts mandated that the school day begin with some sort of prayer. The first case to come to the Supreme Court regarding school prayer was that of Engel v. Vitale in 1961. A group of ten parents sued the Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9 in Hyde Park, New York for having the following prayer said aloud in the presence of a teacher every day:

"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country."

The prayer was composed by the New York State Board of Regents, which is a state agency, and which had broad supervisory powers over the state's public schools. The prayer was part of the Regents' "Statement on Moral and Spiritual Training In The Schools."

A class action was brought by a set of ten parents who felt the prayer was contrary to the religious practices of both the parents and the students, and they maintained that the state's use of this prayer violated that part of the Federal Constitution that states "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion." This clause was made applicable to state law by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

The lower courts that heard the case upheld the power of New York to allow the prayer to be said each day as long as no student was forced to participate or if the student was compelled to do so over the parents' objection.

Further Internet Study

Selected Historic Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court - http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cases/historic.htm

Read about how school prayer played a role in the 1996 election at Education Week On The Web: http://www.edweek.org/context/election/prayer.htm

The Issue Before the Court:

Does the voluntary use of a government-composed, non- denominational, voluntary prayer in the public schools violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution?

Supreme Court Ruling: Official prayer in public schools is a violation of the Constitution which states "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion..."

Majority Opinion Excerpt

The decision of Supreme Court in the case of Engel v. Vitale was delivered by Justice Hugo Black in 1962. Representing the majority opinion of 5-2, Black wrote:

The religious nature of prayer was recognized by Jefferson, and has been concurred in by theological writers, the United States Supreme court, and State courts and administrative officials, including New York's Commissioner of Education. A committee of the New York legislature has agreed.

The petitioners contend... that the state laws requiring or permitting use of the Regents' prayer must be struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause... We agree with this contention since we think that, in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.

The New York laws officially prescribing the Regent's prayer are inconsistent both with the purposes of the Establishment Clause and with the Establishment Clause itself.

Dissenting Opinion Excerpt

Justice potter Stewart wrote:

I think the Court has misapplied a great constitutional principle. I cannot see how an "official religion" is established by letting those who want to say a prayer say it. On the contrary, I think that to deny the wish of these school children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our Nation.

He continued with excerpts from speeches made by presidents of the United States from Washington to Kennedy that made some sort of reference to God or religion. He also used Jefferson's Second Inaugural Address. On March 4, 1805, President Thomas Jefferson said:

". . . I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations."

The principles outlined in Engel v. Vitale were extended to a voluntary moment of silence in the 1985 case of Wallace v. Jaffe.

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