Engel v. Vitale

Engel v. Vitale

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Encyclopedia
Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), was a landmark
Landmark decision
Landmark court decisions establish new precedents that establish a significant new legal principle or concept, or otherwise substantially change the interpretation of existing law...

 United States Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 case that determined that it is unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer
School prayer
School prayer in its common usage refers to state-approved prayer by students in state schools. Depending on the country and the type of school, organized prayer may be required, permitted, or prohibited...

 and require its recitation in public schools.

Background of the case


The case was brought by the families of public school students in New Hyde Park, New York
New Hyde Park, New York
New Hyde Park is a village in Nassau County, New York, United States, on Long Island.The population of the Village of New Hyde Park was 9,712 at the 2010 census...

 who complained that the voluntary prayer to "Almighty God" contradicted their religious beliefs. They were supported by groups opposed to the school prayer including rabbinical organizations, Ethical Culture
Ethical Culture
The Ethical movement, also referred to as the Ethical Culture movement or simply Ethical Culture, is an ethical, educational, and religious movement that is usually traced back to Felix Adler...

, and Judaic organizations. The prayer in question was:

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.


The plaintiffs argued that opening the school day with such a prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution
First Amendment to the United States Constitution
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering...

 (as applied to the states
Incorporation (Bill of Rights)
The incorporation of the Bill of Rights is the process by which American courts have applied portions of the U.S. Bill of Rights to the states. Prior to the 1890s, the Bill of Rights was held only to apply to the federal government...

 through the Fourteenth
Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of the Reconstruction Amendments.Its Citizenship Clause provides a broad definition of citizenship that overruled the Dred Scott v...

), which says in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion". The governments of twenty-two states signed on to an amicus curiae
Amicus curiae
An amicus curiae is someone, not a party to a case, who volunteers to offer information to assist a court in deciding a matter before it...

brief urging affirmation of the New York Court of Appeals
New York Court of Appeals
The New York Court of Appeals is the highest court in the U.S. state of New York. The Court of Appeals consists of seven judges: the Chief Judge and six associate judges who are appointed by the Governor to 14-year terms...

 decision that upheld the constitutionality of the prayer. The American Ethical Union, the American Jewish Committee
American Jewish Committee
The American Jewish Committee was "founded in 1906 with the aim of rallying all sections of American Jewry to defend the rights of Jews all over the world...

, and the Synagogue Council of America
Synagogue Council of America
The Synagogue Council of America was an organization of American Jewish synagogue associations, founded in 1926, including :*The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America *The Rabbinical Council of America...

 each submitted briefs urging the Court to instead reverse and rule that the prayer was unconstitutional.

The Court's decision


In an opinion delivered by Justice Hugo Black
Hugo Black
Hugo Lafayette Black was an American politician and jurist. A member of the Democratic Party, Black represented Alabama in the United States Senate from 1927 to 1937, and served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1937 to 1971. Black was nominated to the Supreme...

, the Court ruled that government-written prayers were not to be recited in public schools and were an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause
Establishment Clause of the First Amendment
The Establishment Clause is the first of several pronouncements in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, stating, Together with the Free Exercise Clause The Establishment Clause is the first of several pronouncements in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,...

. This was decided in a vote of 6-1, because before the decision could be announced, Justice Felix Frankfurter suffered a cerebral stroke that forced him to retire, and Justice Byron White took no part in the case.

The Court explained the importance of separation between church and state by giving a lengthy history of the issue, beginning with the sixteenth century in England. It then stated that school's prayer is a religious activity by the very nature of it being a prayer, and that prescribing such a religious activity for school children violates the Establishment Clause. The program, created by government officials to promote a religious belief, was therefore constitutionally impermissible.

The Court rejected the defendant's arguments that people are not asked to respect any specific established religion; and that the prayer is voluntary. The Court held that the mere promotion of a religion is sufficient to establish a violation, even if that promotion is not coercive. The Court further held that the fact that the prayer is vaguely worded enough not to promote any particular religion is not a sufficient defense, as it still promotes a family of religions (those that recognize "Almighty God"), which still violates the Establishment Clause.

Subsequent jurisprudence


Engel became the basis for several subsequent decisions limiting government-directed prayer in school. In Wallace v. Jaffree
Wallace v. Jaffree
Wallace v. Jaffree, , was a United States Supreme Court case deciding on the issue of silent school prayer.An Alabama law authorized teachers to set aside one minute at the start of each day for a moment of "silent meditation or voluntary prayer," and sometimes the teacher of the classroom asked...

(1985), the Supreme Court ruled Alabama's law permitting one minute for prayer or meditation was unconstitutional. In Lee v. Weisman
Lee v. Weisman
Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 , was a United States Supreme Court decision regarding school prayer. It was the first major school prayer case decided by the Rehnquist Court. It involved prayers led by religious authority figures at public school graduation ceremonies...

(1992), the court prohibited clergy-led prayer at high school graduation ceremonies. Lee v. Weisman, in turn, was a basis for Santa Fe ISD v. Doe
Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe
Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 , was a case heard before the United States Supreme Court. It ruled that a policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at high school football games violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Oral arguments were heard...

(2000), in which the Court extended the ban to school sanctioning of student-led prayer at high school football games.

See also

  • List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 370
  • List of United States Supreme Court cases
  • Separation of Church and State in the United States
    Separation of church and state in the United States
    The phrase "separation of church and state" , attributed to Thomas Jefferson and others, and since quoted by the Supreme Court of the United States, expresses an understanding of the intent and function of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States...

  • West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette
    West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette
    West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 , is a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that held that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protected students from being forced to salute the American flag and say the...

    (1943)
  • Everson v. Board of Education
    Everson v. Board of Education
    Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court which applied the religion clauses in the country's Bill of Rights to state as well as federal law...

    (1947)
  • Abington School District v. Schempp
    Abington School District v. Schempp
    Abington Township School District v. Schempp , 374 U.S. 203 , was a United States Supreme Court case argued on February 27–28, 1963 and decided on June 17, 1963...

    (1963)
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman
    Lemon v. Kurtzman
    Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 , was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Pennsylvania's 1968 Nonpublic Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which allowed the state Superintendent of Public Instruction to reimburse nonpublic schools for the salaries of teachers who...

    (1971)
  • Wallace v. Jaffree
    Wallace v. Jaffree
    Wallace v. Jaffree, , was a United States Supreme Court case deciding on the issue of silent school prayer.An Alabama law authorized teachers to set aside one minute at the start of each day for a moment of "silent meditation or voluntary prayer," and sometimes the teacher of the classroom asked...

    (1985)
  • Herricks Union Free School District
    Herricks Union Free School District
    The Herricks Union Free School District is a school district located in western Nassau County on Long Island, in New York State. The district lies within the Greater New Hyde Park area and serves a number of communities including Herricks, Garden City Park, Manhasset Hills, Searingtown, North...


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