What to Know About Engel v. Vitale and School Prayer

The particulars of the 1962 ruling on prayer in public school

What authority, if any, does the U.S. government have when it comes to religious rituals like prayers? The Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court decision of 1962 deals with this very question.

The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 1 that it was unconstitutional for a government agency like a school or government agents like public school employees to require students to recite prayers.

Here's how this ultimately important church vs. state decision evolved and how it ended up before the Supreme Court.

 

Engel v. Vitale and the New York Board of Regents

The New York State Board of Regents, which had supervisory power over New York public schools began a program of “moral and spiritual training” in the schools which included a daily prayer. The Regents themselves composed the prayer, in what was intended to be a non-denominational format. Labeled the “To whom it may concern” prayer by one commentator, it stated:

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

But some parents objected, and the American Civil Liberties Union joined with 10 of the parents in a suit against the Board of Education of New Hyde Park, New York.  Amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs were filed by the American Ethical Union, the American Jewish Committee and the Synagogue Council of America supporting the lawsuit, which sought to remove the prayer requirement.

Both the state court and the New York Court of Appeals allowed the prayer to be recited.

Who Was Engel?

Richard Engel was one of the parents who objected to the prayer and filed the initial lawsuit. Engel has often said that his name became part of the decision only because it came ahead of the other parents' names alphabetically on the list of plaintiffs.

 

Engel and the other parents said their children endured taunting at school because of the lawsuit, and that he and other plaintiffs received threatening phone calls and letters while the suit made its way through the courts. 

Supreme Court Decision in Engel v. Vitale

In his majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black sided substantially with the arguments of the separationists, who quoted heavily from Thomas Jefferson and made extensive use of his “wall of separation” metaphor. Particular emphasis was placed upon James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.”

The decision was 6-1 because Justices Felix Frankfurter and Byron White did not take part (Frankfurter had suffered a stroke). Justice Stewart Potter was the sole dissenting vote. 

According to Black's majority opinion, any prayer created by the government was akin to the English creation of the Book of Common Prayer. The Pilgrims came to America originally to avoid exactly this type of relationship between government and organized religion. In Black's words, the prayer was “a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause.”

Although the Regents argued that there was no compulsion on students to recite the prayer, Black observed that:

  • Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observances on the part of students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment clause

What is the Establishment Clause?

This is the portion of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prohibits the establishment of religion by Congress. 

In the Engel v. Vitale case, Black wrote that the Establishment clause is violated regardless of whether there is any “showing of direct government compulsion...whether those laws operate directly to coerce non-observing individuals or not.” Black pointed out that the decision showed great respect for religion, not hostility:

  • It is neither sacrilegious nor anti-religious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance.

    Significance of Engel v. Vitale

    This case was one of the first in a series of cases in which a variety of religious activities sponsored by the government were found to violate the Establishment Clause. This was the first case which effectively prohibited the government from sponsoring or endorsing official prayer in schools.

    Engel v. Vitale got the ball rolling on separation of church and state issues in the latter half of the 20th century.