- In the 1950s, New York schools encouraged teachers to lead students in a non-denominational prayer each morning. A group of parents, including Steven Engel, challenged this school prayer as a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
- The Supreme Court ruled that the school-led prayer violated the First Amendment, citing the importance of separating government and religion.
Background of the case
In 1951, the State Board of Regents of New York composed a non-denominational prayer for public school students in New York to recite each morning along with the Pledge of Allegiance. The prayer read: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country.”
Participation in the prayer was voluntary, but students who left the room or remained silent during the prayer risked being ostracized by their peers for following a different religion or no religion. School leaders also conducted the prayer like a Christian prayer, with students bowing their heads and pressing their palms together.
Michael Engel was a student at a school in Long Island that adopted the prayer in 1958. His father, Steven Engel, joined with several other parents of students in the district to protest the prayer. They argued that the school-sponsored prayer violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” When the Board of Regents refused to consider their petition to stop the prayer, the group of parents filed suit.
The case reached the Supreme Court in 1962.
The Constitutional question at stake
Did the Board of Regents’ voluntary non-denominational prayer violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment?
Yes, the prayer did violate the establishment clause. In a 6-1 decision, the Court sided with Engel and the parent group. They ruled that by providing the prayer, the state of New York had officially approved religion, and the First Amendment prevents government interference with religion. Justice Hugo Black explained the Court’s reasoning:
“The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say . . . Under that Amendment's prohibition against governmental establishment of religion, as reinforced by the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, government in this country, be it state or federal, is without power to 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.”
It’s important to note that the ruling in Engel did not forbid school prayer altogether. Students are still free to pray at school on their own time, but school leaders or state officials cannot lead students in prayer.
Why does Engel v. Vitale matter?
In the Engel case, the Supreme Court ruled that the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prevents the government from supporting religion, applied to school-sponsored prayer. In doing so, the Court prioritized the individual liberty to be free of government interference in religion over any government interest in maintaining order.
School prayer is still a hot issue. Many Americans disagreed with the ruling in Engel at the time, and a majority of Americans still disagree with bans on school prayer today.
Check your understanding
Based on the ruling in Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court is most likely to view a case concerning which of the following as an establishment clause case?
What do you think?
The prayer at issue in Engel v. Vitale was voluntary. Why do you think the Supreme Court ruled that schools cannot lead students in prayers, even if students may choose not to participate?
Why do you think school prayer continues to be a hotly-contested matter in the United States?
Want to join the conversation?
- Consedering the fact that the shool prayer was voluntary and that the majority of the Americans still disagree with bans on school prayer today, and ask Congress to bring school prayer back into school. Will this be a violation of indiviuals right if this laws is passed ? But if it's not passed woulnd't be like if only a minority have a voice? I know that the Constitution is over federal's law, but if the Constitution is for the people of United States and the majority thinks that schools praying is not a violation to individual's right; then why not bringing it back just like highshool sport teams do voluntary prayers before games?(1 vote)
- The prayers may have been voluntary, but with teachers or other school faculty leading them or providing a platform for them they are coercive. Students are essentially a captive audience at school and are easily influenced. So saying something is voluntary yet having an authority figure performing it, it becomes highly awkward for a student if they wanted to choose to not participate. That is why they are unconstitutional. Students are still allowed to pray on their own, as long as it isn't disruptive.(32 votes)
- I thought there is a mistake in this text. Isn't only public school-led pray is un-constitutional while if it is a private school, it will be fine?(3 votes)
- This text may not have explicitly stated that, but you're right, school-led prayer was only prohibited in public schools! The article notes that the state of New York, through the Board of Regents "had officially approved religion." The state board ruling at question only applied to public schools and the Supreme Court's ruling was based on the fact that the state government was instituting prayer.
Private schools don't fall under the sphere of state government like public schools do, so any prayer in private schools aren't considered a state establishment of religion. The Bill of Rights only applies to the government, not to private organizations like businesses and churches.(2 votes)
- I was wondering on the relation to this decision and the more recent Kennedy v Bremerton School District, which also pertains to religion in schools. That case is slightly different as it relates to a teacher/coach's first ammendment right to practice personally rather than a led prayer. Does this new case modify, reverse or affirm Engle v Vitale?(2 votes)
- How is it related "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Isn't it about free exercise?(0 votes)
- It's more about an establishment of religion because the school district is requiring students to partake in the prayer. Hopefully, this can be useful to others with the same doubt.(1 vote)