Engel v. Vitale
"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country."
-Voluntary prayer for students in New Hyde Park-Garden City Park School District
In the case of Engel v. Vitale, public school students in the New Hyde Park school system were led in a short, non-denominational prayer before class each day by their teachers. This was authorized by the Union Free School District No. 9. in New Hyde Park, New York.
In 1958, five parents of students in the school system brought a lawsuit upon the prayer, led by Steven Engel. Two of the parents were Jewish, one was Unitarian, one was a member of the Ethical Culture Society, and a one was an atheist. They believed that the schools’ system was persuading the students into saying the prayer, although their religions could prove them to be exempt for reciting it. The only problem posed was that these students were not often granted permission to leave the room when the prayer was recited. Although the prayer was voluntary, the parents argued that the prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which is “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
MAKING THE CASE IN COURT
The parents had to seek help from the American Civil Liberties Union. However, the lawsuit failed, which led to the parents asking the New York Supreme Court to accept and review their case against the school board. The school board had to defend the prayer on the grounds of the prayer being an example of free exercise of religion and that they fell short of establishing a religion since the prayer built moral character.
Hyde Park School District families photographed
following the Engel v. Vitale verdict.
On June 25, 1962, with a 7-1 majority, Supreme Court found the prayer unconstitutional, since the prayer was “wholly inconsistent” with the Establishment Clause. However, Justice Black scolded the school board’s claim that the prayer was harmless. He wrote, “One of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lies in the government’s placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious services.”