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Engel v. Vitale

Justice Black For The Majority Declares Public School Prayer Wholly Unconstitutional

Writing for the Court, Justice Black stated unequivocally that any religious activity sponsored by public schools was inherently unconstitutional:

We think that in using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regent's prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause . . . we think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country 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.

Always a First Amendment fundamentalist who took the words of the amendment at face value, Black cited no other cases to support this contention, instead concentrating on British and American history to illustrate the strength of the founding fathers' prohibition against any intermingling of church and state affairs. In contrast, the lone dissenter, Justice Stewart, maintained that the Establishment Clause merely forbids government establishment of a state religion. At the time, Stewart's opinion was disregarded. More recently, however, the Court's attitude towards prayer in the schools has softened, and in 1985, in his dissenting opinion in Wallace v. Jaffree William Rehnquist--who became chief justice the following year--adopted Stewart's line of argument.

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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