Engel v. Vitale 1962

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Engel v. Vitale 1962

Petitioner: Steven L. Engel, et al.

Respondent: William J. Vitale, et al.

Petitioner's Claim: That a New York school district violated the First Amendment by requiring a short prayer to be read before class each morning.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: William J. Butler

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Bertram B. Daiker

Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black (writing for the Court), William J. Brennan, Jr., Tom C. Clark, William O. Douglas, John Marshall Harlan II, Earl Warren

Justices Dissenting: Potter Stewart (Felix Frankfurter and Byron R. White did not participate)

Date of Decision: June 25, 1962

Decision: Official prayers in public schools are unconstitutional because they violate the separation of church and state.

Significance: The decision prevents public school teachers from leading their students in any religious activity.

Preventing an official religion

For some of the people who left England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to colonize America, the reason was a desire to escape the Church of England. The Church of England was an official church supported by the British government. The British government required its citizens to worship in the Church of England and to say prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. People who followed other religions or said other prayers violated criminal laws and were punished.

The founders of the United States did not want the government to have religious power. They wanted U.S. citizens to be free to choose their own religion. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights protects this freedom. (The Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791, contains the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.) The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The first part of this amendment, called the Establishment Clause, prevents the government from establishing an official religion or supporting one religion over others. It has been described as creating a "wall of separation between church and state." Although the First Amendment only refers to the federal government, state governments must obey it under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Prayers in public schools

In the 1960s the school board of New Hyde Park, New York, required all classes to read a short prayer with their teacher before school each day. The prayer said, "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country." The prayer did not come from a specific religion. Students who did not want to say the prayer could either remain silent or leave the room. Teachers could not embarrass students who chose not to participate.

The parents of ten students filed a lawsuit to challenge the prayer. They said it violated the First Amendment guarantee of separation of church and state. The school district disagreed. It said the prayer did not establish an official state religion because it was nondenominational, meaning it did not come from a specific religion. The school district also said the prayer did not violate the Establishment Clause because students could choose not to participate.

The trial court ruled in favor of the school district. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed, which means it approved the trial court's ruling. Steven Engel and the other parents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Raising the wall of separation

In a 6–1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against the school district's prayer. Writing for the Court, Justice Hugo Lafayette Black said the school district admitted that the prayer was religious activity. He explained that under the Establishment Clause, "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."

Justice Black supported this decision by analyzing history. He told the story of power struggles in England over what prayers to include in the Book of Common Prayer. He also described people who were punished for refusing to say those prayers or to attend the official Church of England. He explained how people who were forced to follow a particular religion came to hate both religion and the government. According to Justice Black, the First Amendment's Establishment Clause was meant to avoid such problems in the United States.

Justice Black rejected the arguments that the prayer was voluntary and nondenominational. He said the Establishment Clause prevents the government from conducting religious activity of any kind.

Ignoring the nation's religious heritage?

Justice Potter Stewart wrote a dissenting opinion, which means he disagreed with the Court's decision. Stewart thought the Court raised the wall of separation too high. In fact, said Stewart, the language "wall of separation" appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution or the First Amendment. It comes from a letter that President Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.

In Stewart's opinion, the Establishment Clause only prevents the government from setting up an official religion, like the Church of England. Stewart said that a simple, nondenominational, voluntary school prayer does not establish a state religion. Instead, it allows students to participate in the United States's spiritual heritage.


M ildred Rosario was a sixth grade teacher in the Bronx, New York. On June 8, 1998, as Rosario's students came to class, the principal used the school intercom to ask for a moment of silence for Christopher Lee, a fifth grader who had drowned.

After the silence, a student asked Rosario where Lee was. Rosario said he was in heaven. Rosario's students then asked questions about God and heaven. After giving the students a chance to leave the room Rosario answered the questions. Then she touched her students' foreheads and said a prayer.

After a student complained, the school board fired Rosario. Some people said Rosario clearly violated the law as laid out in the Engel ruling and the separation of church and state by praying with her public school students. Others thought Rosario simply was trying to help her children deal with the death of a fellow student. One student complained, "We talk about guns and condoms and they give us condoms to have safe sex on the streets. But we can't talk about the one who made us."

Stewart described the nation's spiritual heritage as a history of recognizing God's influence in our daily lives. He said presidents from George Washington to John F. Kennedy had asked for God's blessing when accepting the job of U.S. president. At the beginning of each day in the Supreme Court, the official Crier says, "God save the United States and this Honorable Court." Both the Senate and the House of Representatives open each day with a prayer led by a chaplain or other religious person.

In Stewart's opinion, the Court's decision meant that "the Constitution permits judges and Congressmen and Presidents to join in prayer, but prohibits school children from doing so."

Suggestions for further reading

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Religion. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company, 1990.

Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Gay, Kathlyn. Church and State: Government and Religion in the United States. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Hirst, Mike. Freedom of Belief. New York, NY: Franklin Watts, 1997.

Kleeberg, Irene Cumming. Separation of Church and State. New York, NY: Franklin Watts, 1986.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Sherrow, Victoria. Freedom of Worship. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.

World Book Encyclopedia, 1997 ed., entry on "Religious Education." Chicago, IL: World Book, 1997.