Engel v. Vitale

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in Engel v. Vitale (1962), its first ever case on prayer in public schools, is popularly known as the “Regents Prayer” decision. In Engel, the Court ruled that the New York State Board of Regents, the body that supervises the New York State public schools, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in composing and recommending the recitation of a prayer for daily use in the state’s public schools. Engel stands out because it paved the way for a long line of Supreme Court cases involving prayer and religious activities in public schools.

Facts of the Case

Acting on the recommendation of the New York State Board of Regents, the school board in New Hyde Park, a Long Island suburb of New York City, adopted the “Regents Prayer.” The prayer read as follows: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country” (Engel, p. 422). Officials directed the principals in the school system to have the prayer recited aloud at the beginning of each school day in all classes and in the presence of a teacher.

The parents of 10 pupils in New Hyde Park filed suit in a state court, challenging the recitation of the “Regents Prayer” in the schools their children attended. The plaintiffs questioned the constitutionality both of the state law permitting school officials to authorize school prayer as well as the board’s decision to adopt the “Regents Prayer,” on the grounds that both actions violated the First Amendment, which applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibiting any law respecting the “establishment” of religion.

After a trial court entered a judgment in favor of the board, the state’s high court affirmed. The court found that Board of Regents had the power to authorize the use of the “Regents Prayer” in public schools as long as no students were compelled to join in it over the objections of their parents. The Supreme Court then granted the parents request for further review.

The Court’s Ruling

In a 6-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court reversed and struck down the practice of reciting the “Regents Prayer” at the beginning of every school day. The Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Hugo Black, decided that state-mandated prayer in school was “wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause” (Engel, p. 424). The Court agreed with the arguments made on behalf of the parents that the prayer was unconstitutional because it was composed by government officials as part of a government program to further religious beliefs. The Court noted that the prohibition against an establishment of religion means at least that the government has no business composing official prayers for any group of people to recite as part of a religious program.

The Supreme Court also dismissed the school board’s arguments that the prayer did not violate the Establishment Clause because it was nondenominational and students were not required to participate in its recitation. According to the Court, the fact that the prayer was “denominationally neutral” and that student participation was voluntary did not excuse the Establishment Clause violation. The Court pointed out that an Establishment Clause violation does not require any showing of compulsion by the government. Instead, the Court was of the view that such a violation takes place on the enactment of any law establishing an official religion, regardless of whether it coerces individuals who choose not to observe the religious practice.

In dissent, Justice Potter Stewart reviewed religious references found throughout the government, including the invocation of God at the beginning of every Supreme Court session, the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the inclusion of “In God We Trust” on the nation’s coins. He concluded that the practice of reciting the “Regents Prayer” was not the establishment of an official religion, but an instance of the spiritual traditions of the United States.

James F. Pearn, Jr.

See also Abington Township School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett; Lee v. Weisman; Religious Activities in Public Schools; Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe; Wallace v. Jaffree

Legal Citations