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Engel v. Vitale

By Jeffrey Ohene Darko

The school day opens with prayer at private school at the Farm Bureau building. Pie Town, New Mexico, June 1940. Library of Congress.

What is Engel v. Vitale?
Engel v. Vitale is the 1962 Supreme Court case which declared school-sponsored prayer in public schools unconstitutional.

Who were Engel and Vitale?
Steven Engel was a parent in New Hyde Park, New York. He and a group of other parents objected to the recitation of prayer, albeit voluntary, at the start of each school day.

William Vitale was the president of the school board, and was sued by Steven Engel and the group of parents.

So what was at issue?
At the start of each school day in New York State, students would recite both the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country." The non-denominational prayer was written by the New York State Board of Regents.

In 1959, a group of parents in New Hyde Park, New York, led by Steven Engel, brought suit against school board president William Vitale, arguing that the prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which was applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. This clause states that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The defendants argued that, as recitation was voluntary, it was not in violation of the First Amendment.

The case was first heard by the New York State Supreme Court, which sided with the defendants, upholding the legality of the recitation of state-sponsored prayer. That decision was affirmed by the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, which held that, “The state is not imposing a religious belief by using this prayer.” It was again affirmed by the New York Court of Appeals, which found that “there was a sufficient separation of church and state so that the First Amendment was not infringed.”

In all three of those decisions, the voluntary nature of the recitation was invoked.

The case proceeded to the United States Supreme Court, where oral arguments were made on April 3, 1962.

What was the decision?
In a six-to-one ruling (two justices did not participate) handed down by Justice Hugo Black, the Court decided that, indeed prayers written by the state contradicted the Establishment Clause and therefore violated the U.S. Constitution.

The ruling stated: “…in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people.” In his opinion, Justice Black harkened back to the very origins of the United States, writing that, “It is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America.”

Justice Black was unequivocal in his decision, writing that, “There can be no doubt that New York's state prayer program officially establishes the religious beliefs embodied in the Regents' prayer.” He addressed the nature of the prayer in his next sentences, writing that, “The respondents' argument to the contrary, which is largely based upon the contention that the Regents' prayer is ‘nondenominational’ and the fact that the program, as modified and approved by state courts, does not require all pupils to recite the prayer, but permits those who wish to do so to remain silent or be excused from the room, ignores the essential nature of the program's constitutional defects. Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observance on the part of the students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause…”

Published June 22, 2017.

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