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Engel v. Vitale

Significance

The Court stated for the first time that the Constitution forbids public schools from sponsoring religious activities.

The First Amendment clearly forbids government from enacting any law "respecting an establishment of religion." Prior to hearing Engel v. Vitale in 1962, the Supreme Court had honored the formulation first put on this proscription by Thomas Jefferson that a "wall" separates church and state. But in earlier decisions such as Zorach v. Clauson (1952)--upholding a program permitting public school students to receive religious training during school hours, but off school premises--the Court had permitted there to be some accommodation between public schools and religious activities. In Engel, the Court would make the barrier between the two almost unbreachably high.

In 1962, the school board of New Hyde Park, New York required that the following prayer be spoken aloud by each class every morning in front of a teacher: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country." The nondenominational prayer had been composed and recommended by state officials. Parents of ten pupils in the school district responded by bringing suit in state court to stop the practice of mandated prayer in school. After the New York Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the trial court permitting public schools to use the prayer--so long as it was voluntary--the parents applied to the U.S. Supreme Court for review of this decision.

The parents were joined in their appeal by the American Civil Liberties Union and a variety of other groups, many of them associated with the Jewish religion. For its part, the school board was joined by Porter R. Chandler, a lawyer associated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. While the parents and their supporters claimed that the state-sponsored prayer clearly violated the First Amendment, the school board argued, to the contrary, that because no one was obliged to say the prayer, and because it was not geared towards any particular religion, it conformed to the policy of free exercise of religion promoted by the U.S. Constitution.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Engel v. Vitale - Significance, Justice Black For The Majority Declares Public School Prayer Wholly Unconstitutional, Official State Prayer