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Religion in Public Schools: Engel v. Vitale
Digital History ID 1197


Annotation: In the fall of 1958, Steven Engel visited his son's elementary school classroom in Hyde Park, New York. Engel, a Jew, was upset to see his son’s hands clasped and his head bent in prayer. He told his son that this was “not the way we say prayers.”

The local school board in Hyde Park, New York required all of the district’s teachers to lead their class in reciting a 22-word, non-denominational prayer at the beginning of the school day:

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

Engel and four other parents -- two Jews, an atheist, a Unitarian, and another Protestant -- complained that the prayer was "contrary to the beliefs, religions, or religious practices of both themselves and their children." A state court permitted the prayer to continue as long as no student was required to recite it. Under the state court ruling, students were free to remain silent or be excused from the classroom during the recitation of the prayer.

In the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale, by a 6 to 1 vote, the Supreme Court reversed the state court's decision, saying that it violated the First Amendment's ban against the establishment of religion. The court ruled that any state-sponsored prayer, even if it is denominationally-neutral, represented an unconstitutional effort to promote religion and an infringement of the wall of separation that the Constitution set up between church and state.

The case provoked a storm of controversy. "I am shocked and frightened that the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional a simple and voluntary declaration of belief in God by public school children," said the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman. "The decision strikes at the very heart of the Godly tradition in which America's children have for so long been raised." A large cross made up of gas soaked rags was burned on the driveway of one of the plaintiffs.

Document: Justice Black delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9, New Hyde Park, New York, acting in its official capacity under state law, directed the School District's principal to cause the following prayer to be said aloud by each class in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of each school day:

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

This daily procedure was adopted on the recommendation of the State Board of Regents, a governmental agency created by the State Constitution to which the New York Legislature has granted broad supervisory, executive, and legislative powers over the State's public school system. These state officials composed the prayer which they recommended and published as a part of their "Statement on Moral and Spiritual Training in the Schools," saying: "We believe that this Statement will be subscribed to by all men and women of good will, and we call upon all of them to aid in giving life to our program."...

We think that by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents' prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly incon-sistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York's program of daily classroom invocation of God's blessings as prescribed in the Regents' prayer is a religious activity. It is a solemn avowal of divine faith and supplication for the blessing of the Almighty. The nature of such a prayer has always been religious, none of the respondents has denied this and the trial court expressly so found...

The petitioners contend among other things that the state laws requiring or permitting use of the Regents' prayer must be struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause because that prayer was composed by governmental officials as a part of a governmental program to further religious beliefs. For this reason, petitioners argue, the State's use of the Regents' prayer in its public school system breaches the constitutional wall of separation between Church and State. We agree with that contention since we think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean 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.

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. The Book of Common Prayer, which was created under governmental direction and which was approved by Acts of Parliament in 1548 and 1549, set out in minute detail the accepted form and content of prayer and other religious ceremonies to be used in the established, tax-supported Church of England.

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