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Engel v. Vitale

370 U.S. 421 (1962)


Facts of the Case:

A group of parents sued a New York public school district for requiring students to begin each school day by reciting a nondenominational prayer. Written by the New York State Board of Regents, the prayer read: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country." Both the state court and the New York Court of Appeals allowed the prayer to be recited.



Decision:

The Court ruled that requiring students to recite the prayer is unconstitutional.


Majority Opinion: (Justice Black)

The 'religious activity' of reciting the Regents' prayer violates the Establishment Clause. This governmentally orchestrated prayer recitation is akin to the practices in English Creation of the Book of Common Prayer. It was to avoid this type of relationship between government and organized religion that many early colonists came to America. The Founders included the First Amendment to ensure that the majority could not officially recognize any particular religion as the use of school prayers does. Concerning the lack of compulsion on students to recite the prayer, "Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observances on the part of students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause..." The Establishment clause is violated regardless of whether there is any "showing of direct government compulsion...whether those laws operate directly to coerce nonobserving individuals or not."


Significance:

This case was one of the first in a series of cases in which a variety of religious activities were found to violate the Establishment Clause. Neither the voluntary nature of school prayers nor their nondenominational character protected them from violating the Establishment Clause.


RealAudio of Oral Argument

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   Oral Argument.

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