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Engel v. Vitale (1962)

Prayers in Public Schools

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What authority, if any, does the government have when it comes religious rituals like prayers? Can a government write specific prayers for public school students to recite every day? That used to be the case in many places in America, but that was challenged and ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court.

 

Background Information

This is one of the most important cases in the history of the Supreme Court’s church/state decisions.

The State Board of Regents, which had supervisory power over New York public schools, had become concerned about an apparent decline in the morality of school students and so began a program of “moral and spiritual training” in the schools. This program included a prayer every morning which the Regents themselves had composed in a nondenominational form. 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.

A group of 10 parents were joined by the ACLU in a suit against the Board of Education of New Hyde Park, New York because they had adopted that prayer. Amicus curiae briefs were filed by the American Ethical Union, the American Jewish Committee and the Synagogue Council of America. Both the state court and the New York Court of Appeals allowed the prayer to be recited.

 

Court Decision

Arguments were made on April 3rd, 1962. On June 25, 1962, the Supreme Court ruled 7 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.

In his majority opinion, Justice 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.”

According to Black, the governmentally created prayer recitation is much like the English creation of the Book of Common Prayer. It was to avoid exactly this type of relationship between government and organized religion that many early colonists came to America. In his 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...

The Establishment clause is violated regardless of whether there is any “showing of direct government compulsion...whether those laws operate directly to coerce nonobserving individuals or not.” As if he anticipated the harsh public reaction, Black attempted to point out that the decision shows 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

This case was one of the first in a series of cases, many in the 1960s, 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 prayers in schools, not Abington School District v. Schempp (from the following year) as is commonly thought.

People were outraged that official prayers were no longer permitted in schools, although their anger was directed mostly at the cases which were decided in the following years. Representative of most reactions was a statement from evangelist Billy Graham, who still opposes church/state separation even today:

    This is another step toward the secularization of the United States. [...] The framers of our Constitution meant we were to have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

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

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