Engel v. Vitale (1962)

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Historical Background

After World War II, the United States experienced another period of intense concern about the spread of communism abroad and fear of subversion at home. The Federal Government enacted a program requiring all employees to take loyalty oaths, while U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed there were communist agents in government. Alleged “communist spies“ were called forth to give testimony before a Senate subcommittee chaired by McCarthy. These hearings had the impact of sensational court dramas that filled the media, while the deployment of U.S. soldiers to fight communist aggression in Korea made the threat of communism at home all the more palpable. In this context, some States enacted a variety of programs to encourage patriotism, moral character, and other values of good citizenship. They also began challenging separation of church and state issues in hopes of providing students with strong moral and spiritual stamina. In this case, the Warren Court once again was to take up a controversial issue.

Circumstances of the Case

In 1951 the New York State Board of Regents (the State board of education) approved a 22-word “nondenominational prayer“ for recitation each morning in the public schools of New York. It read: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.“ The Regents believed that the prayer could be a useful tool for the development of character and good citizenship among the students of the State of New York. The prayer was offered to the school boards in the State for their use, and participation in the “prayer-exercise“ was voluntary. In New Hyde Park, New York, the Union Free School District No. 9 directed the local principal to have the prayer “said aloud by each class in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of the school day.“

The parents of ten pupils in the New Hyde Park schools objected to the prayer. They filed suit in a New York State court seeking a ban on the prayer, insisting that the use of this official prayer in the public schools was contrary to their own and their children's beliefs, religions, or religious practices. The State appeals court upheld the use of the prayer, “so long as the schools did not compel any pupil to join in the prayer over his or his parents' objection.“

Constitutional Issues

The question before the Court involved the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. Did the Regents of New York violate the religious freedom of students by providing time during the school day for this particular prayer? Did the prayer itself represent an unconstitutional action-in effect, the establishment of a religious code-by a public agency? Did the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment prevent schools from engaging in “religious activity“? Was the “wall of separation“ between church and state breached in this case?


For Engel (the parents): The separation of church and state requires that government stay out of the business of prescribing religious activities of any kind. The Regents' prayer quite simply and clearly violated the 1st Amendment and should, therefore, be barred from the schools.

For the Regents of the State of New York: The New York Regents did not establish a religion by providing a prayer for those who wanted to say it. Countless religious elements are associated with governments and officials, reflecting the religious heritage of the nation. New York acted properly and constitutionally in providing an optional, nonsectarian prayer. It would be an intrusion into State matters for the Supreme Court to strike down the right of the Regents to compose the prayer and encourage its recitation.

Decision and Rationale

The Court found the New York Regents' prayer to be unconstitutional. Justice Hugo Black wrote the opinion for the 6-1 majority: “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 inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York's program of daily classroom invocation of God's blessingsâ¦in the Regents' Prayer is a religious activity

Black further explained that “When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plainâ¦. The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its 'unhallowed perversion' by a civil magistrate.“

To support the Court's finding, Black referred to the following ideas of the Framers: “To those who may subscribe to the view that because the Regents' official prayer is so brief and general [it] can be no danger to religious freedomâ¦, it may be appropriate to say in the words of James Madison, the author of the First Amendment:⦠'Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?'“

The Court's decision was not, Black pointed out, antireligious. It sought, rather, only to affirm the separation between church and state. “It is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers Thereafter, State governments could not “prescribe by law any particular form of prayer which is to be used as an official prayer in carrying on any program of governmentally sponsored religious activity.“

Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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