Skip to main content

Student Project: Prayer in Public Schools: Engel v. Vitale

A guide to the legal issues of school prayer

Books

Contemporary Sources

The Case

"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 blessings 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.'" Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 422 (1962).


So begins the Supreme Court's decision in Engel v. Vitale, a controversial case which was widely misunderstood at the time it was decided, and which remains controversial. The New York Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the recitation of the Regents' prayer, so long as no student was compelled to participate in the prayer over his or her parents' objections. Engel v. Vitale, 176 N.E.2d 579.* No mention is made by the Supreme Court of whether a student could be compelled to participate sans an objection by his or her parents, but that point is made moot by the Court's holding that the Regents' prayer is an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause.

The respondents do not deny the religious nature of an invocation which expressly requests the blessings of "Almighty God," and the Court implicitly recognizes that public schools are an apparatus of the state. For a school to require the recitation of religious speech is to allow the state to advance the purposes of a particular system of religious belief (even though the prayer in question didn't explicitly refer to any particular deity, though one would be hard-pressed to believe it was addressing Wotan). For the state to adopt practices which advance or inhibit religious belief or practice is a violation of the wall of separation between church and state. Justice Black briefly recounts the days of colonial settlers fleeing the state-controlled Church of England and the conflict that arose over the Book of Common Prayer.

"[I]t 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." Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 425 (1962).

*Westlaw subscription required

President Kennedy Comments on Engel v. Vitale Decision

Oral Arguments

Proposed Legislation

The Engel v. Vitale decision was, and remains, controversial among social conservatives, who characterize the ban on school prayer as an assault on religious liberty. Various efforts have been made by members of Congress to amend the Constitution specifically to allow public school prayer or pass legislation such as the following in order to circumvent federal preemption.