Engel et al. v. Vitale et al., 370 U.S. 421; 82 S. Ct. 1261; 8 L. Ed. 2d 601 (1962)

Engel et al. v. Vitale et al., 370 U.S. 421; 82 S. Ct. 1261; 8 L. Ed. 2d 601 (1962)

Facts—The New York State Board of Regents had recommended, and the local school board had directed the school district’s principal, that the following prayer be said aloud by each class in the presence of the 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.” The parents of ten pupils challenged the use of the prayer.

Question—Does the use of the state-imposed prayer violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment?


ReasonsJ. Black (6–1). Using the public school system to encourage recitation of the prayer is inconsistent with the establishment clause since this is a religious activity and governmental officials composed the prayer as a part of a governmental program to further religious beliefs. The fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral and the fact that its observance on the part of the students is voluntary cannot change the application of the establishment clause. The establishment clause is violated by the enactment of laws that establish an official religion regardless of whether those laws coerce nonobserving individuals or not. It is an historical fact that governmentally established religions and religious persecutions go hand in hand. “When the power, prestige, and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially-approved religion is plain.”

Under the First 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.”

J. Stewart’s dissent viewed the action of the school board as an attempt to allow the majority of school children who wanted to do so to share in the nation’s spiritual heritage.

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