Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Engel v Vitale: 

Supreme Court rules state cannot mandate prayer in school

Throughout most of U.S. history, schools would begin their classes with the singing of the national anthem, recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, or some readings from the bible. In New York, the Board of Regents mandated a universal prayer, for all religious groups, for the public schools. The parents, however, claimed that this was "contrary to the beliefs, religions, or religious practices of both themselves and their children." The state court then permitted the use of the prayer as long as it was not forced. Later, the Supreme Court was against the state's decision since it violated the First Amendment's ban against the establishment of religion.

According to the Engel decision of 1962, the Supreme Court held that the idea of the state to mandate prayer in schools was contrary to the First Amendment's ban against the establishment of religion. This case remains controversial, as the debate in defining what freedom of religion means today. Those opposed to the decision claim that the state should be in favor of, and therefore support, all religions. This means, the state should mandate prayer in schools. Those in favor believe that religion should be removed from the state's decision-making power and left to be determined outside of classes.

The following is Justice Black's 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...

Source: 370 U.S. 421 (1962).

For more information:
Engel v. Vitale

Sources: Engel v Vitale 1962

Prepared by Jenny J. Lee (UCLA)

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