Engel v. Vitale Case Summary
By FindLaw Staff | Legally reviewed by Laura Temme, Esq. | Last reviewed April 26, 2023
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The First Amendment requires a separation between government and religion in the United States. But cultural factors have always pushed against this line. Engel v. Vitale was an important Supreme Court decision regarding prayer in schools in the 1960s.
The U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights begins with:"Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
These words in the First Amendment are known as the "establishment clause" and the "free exercise clause." They created what Thomas Jefferson called “a wall of separation between church and state" for the American people.
But, many traditions developed within American culture that challenge the separation of church and state. For example, U.S.-minted coins have "In God We Trust" printed into them. The Pledge of Allegiance still contains the phrase "one nation under God." And many of our governmental ceremonies have prayer as their opening activity.
For years, many public school districts required school days to begin with a prayer, the singing of "America" or "The Star Spangled Banner." Some even included readings from the Bible. The choice of ritual varied from state to state, according to the preferences of principals, teachers, or school districts.
Prayer in schools met a major challenge in the 1962 Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale.
Background of the Case
In the 1960s, the New York State Board of Regents composed a non-denominational prayer for the state's public schools . At the beginning of each school day, teachers would lead students in the following "Regents' prayer:"
"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessing upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country."
Steven Engel, a parent of a child attending the school, sued the school board for School District No. 9 in New Hyde Park, New York, along with the parents of ten other students. The parents argued the prayer was "contrary to the beliefs, religions, or religious practices of both themselves and their children." They asserted that the prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The New York Court of Appeals upheld the use of voluntary prayer. They viewed the prayer as permissible because state officials did not compel any student to join in the prayer over a parent's objections.
Engel and the other parents (the petitioners) appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which granted certiorari. The school board (the respondents) conceded that the prayer was inherently religious but argued that it did not establish an official religion in New York public schools.
The Court's Analysis
The majority ruled 6-1 that a state-sponsored prayer contradicted the command and intent of the First Amendment. Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority's opinion.
Justice Black remarked that prayer, by definition, constituted a religious activity. He reasoned that even if the prayer was non-denominational or did not support an official religion, it still contradicted the First Amendment.
Around 15 years earlier, Justice Black also wrote the majority opinion in Everson v. Board of Education. There, the justices agreed that public schools must walk a careful line. They must support the religious freedom of students but can't promote one religion over another.
Thus, the majority agreed that when New York promoted prayer, it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Justice Douglas issued a concurring opinion asserting that state-sponsored funding of religious activities violated the First Amendment. Justices White and Frankfurter did not participate in the case, while Justice Stewart dissented.
The Court's decision stated 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...."
Accordingly, the First Amendment, made applicable to state law through the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, bars state-sponsored prayer recitations in public schools.
Justice Potter Stewart wrote the only dissent in the case. He argued that prohibiting prayer in schools deprived children of “the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our Nation.”
Religion in Schools After Engel
Engel unleashed a firestorm of criticism against the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the criticism has relaxed from time to time, it has never died out. The decision has many champions, however, who believe that the Court made the correct decision because religion is and should remain a private matter separate from the federal government. These assenters argue that once a teacher begins leading students in prayer in a public school system, a student will cannot easily object or abstain at that stage. They will thus be forced into prayer with their peers, which is a clear violation of religious liberty under the First Amendment.
Many Americans believe that religious beliefs should be fostered by the state and that the state should be friendly and supportive of all religions. In their opinion, school prayer is a historic and fundamental tradition in a country that boasted of being "one nation under God."
Recent Supreme Court decisions have generally leaned towards protecting religious freedom and practice — as opposed to preserving the separation of church and state. The debate still continues, but Engel v. Vitale is a landmark decision in the effort to define what freedom of religion means in a democratic society.