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Engel v. Vitale (1962)

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..." These words 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."

However, many traditions had developed within American culture that breached this wall of separation. For example, U.S. minted 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 singing of "America" or "The Star Spangled Banner, and possibly some readings from the Bible. The choice of ritual varied from state to state, according to the preferences of principals, teachers, or school districts. In New York, the New York State Board of Regents, which is a state agency with broad supervisory powers over the state's public schools, composed a non-denominational prayer to be recited everyday in school. The prayer was part of the Regents' "Statement on Moral and Spiritual Training In The Schools" and the words were "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessing upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country."

A group of parents sued the Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9 in Hyde Park, New York, challenging the prayer because it was "contrary to the beliefs, religions, or religious practices of both themselves and their children" and that the prayer violated the Establishment Clause. The state's highest court upheld the use of this prayer because state law did not compel any student to join in the prayer over a parent's objections.

On appeal, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the mere idea of a state-sponsored prayer, no matter how harmless, contradicted the command and intent of the First Amendment. Justice Black remarked that a prayer, by definition, constituted a religious activity. Thus, when New York promoted prayer, it violated the Establishment Clause. 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, bars state sponsored prayer recitations in public schools.

The Engel decision unleashed a firestorm of criticism against the Court. Although the criticism has relaxed from time to time, it has never died out. The Court's decision has many champions, who believe that the Court made the correct decision because religion is and should remain a private matter. These assenters argue that once a teacher begins leading students in prayer, a student will cannot easily object or abstain at that stage. He will thus be forced into prayer with their peers, which is a clear First Amendment violation. However, many Americans also believe that religion should be fostered by the state and that the state should be friendly and supportive to all religions. In their opinion, school prayer is a historic and fundamental tradition in a country that boasted being "one nation under God." The debate still continues, but Engels v. Vitale has been a landmark decision in the effort to define what freedom of religion means in a democratic society.

The Full Supreme Court Opinion

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