One of the most controversial issues involving the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is the constitutionality of prayer in public schools. Public school prayer had been a common feature in government- operated schools throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, but in 1962 the Court found the practice unconstitutional in Engel v. Vitale.
In Engel, the Court considered the constitutionality of the following prayer which the state of New York required to be said aloud in every public school classroom each day: ‘‘Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.’’ A group of parents brought suit, alleging that the recitation of this official prayer in the public schools was contrary to their beliefs and religious practices and violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Although New York intended the prayer to be nonsectarian and observance on the part of students to be voluntary (no student was compelled to say the prayer), the Court, with Justice Hugo Black writing, held that the state-mandated prayer offended the Establishment Clause. The Court determined that the Establishment Clause barred more than simply the preference of one religion over another; it also required that the government remain neutral between religion and nonreligion. The Court found it irrelevant that objecting students were permitted to leave the classroom during the recitation of the prayer:
The Establishment Clause . . . does not depend upon any showing of direct governmental compulsion and is violated by the enactment of laws which establish an official religion whether those laws operate directly to coerce non-observing individuals or not . . . . 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.
The Court made an appeal to history to justify its position:
The history of governmentally established religion, both in England and in this country, showed that whenever government had allied itself with one particular form of religion, the inevitable result had been that it had incurred the hatred, disrespect and even contempt of those who held contrary beliefs.
In a separate concurrence, Justice William Douglas conceded that a ‘‘religion is not established in the usual sense merely by letting those who choose to do so to say the prayer that the public school teacher leads.’’ But Douglas was troubled by the fact that New York had financed a religious exercise and had thereby inserted ‘‘a divisive influence into our communities.’’ To Douglas, ‘‘the First Amendment leaves the Government in a position not of hostility to religion but of neutrality . . . . The philosophy is that if government interferes in matters spiritual, it will be a divisive force.’’
Justice Potter Stewart was the lone dissenter in Engel (Justices Frankfurter and White did not participate in the decision). Stewart concluded that by requiring the recitation of the prayer, New York had not ‘‘established an ‘official religion’ in violation of the Constitution.’’ Rather, argued Stewart, New York had merely recognized
the deeply entrenched and highly cherished spiritual traditions of our Nation—traditions which come down to us from those who almost two hundred years ago avowed their ‘firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence’ [quoting the Declaration of Independence] when they proclaimed the freedom and independence of this brave new world.
The Court’s decision in Engel decision produced widespread opposition in the United States. Justice Tom Clark, who joined the majority in Engel, took the unusual step of defending the decision in a public speech in which he emphasized the narrowness of the Court’s holding. In response to Engel, many efforts were launched in Congress to secure a constitutional amendment that would permit school prayer. Although enjoying broad support, all of these efforts failed. Since Engel, the Court has not departed from its view that public school prayer, composed by the state and led by school officials, is unconstitutional. The following year, in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), the Court expanded on the Engel holding by finding state-endorsed prayer also unconstitutional; Schempp involved the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in the public schools. Subsequent legal debates have centered on the constitutionality of moments of silence or prayer by private persons in public schools. In every such case, the Supreme Court has found the public school prayer in question unconstitutional. But even today, Engel remains contentious for manyAmericans and is properly described as one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions of the twentieth century.
DAVISON M. DOUGLAS
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Establishment Clause Doctrine: Supreme Court Jurisprudence; Prayer in Public Schools