The New York Board of Regents, a governmental agency created by the New York Constitution, composed a prayer and recommended its use to the state’s public schools. The Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9, New Hyde Park, New York, required its schools to begin each school day with the prayer. Students recited the prayer aloud immediately following the Pledge of Allegiance in the presence of a teacher who either led the prayer or selected a student to do so. Shortly after the Board of Education adopted the policy requiring students to recite the Regents' prayer, the parents of 10 students brought suit in a New York state court. The parents challenged the constitutionality of the prayer because it was contrary to their religious beliefs and those of their children. They argued that the prayer was a violation of the no establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment. The trial court upheld the use of the prayer as a part of a school’s daily procedure so long as the school did not compel any student to join in the prayer over parents' objections. Following the trial court’s direction, the Hyde Park Board of Education adopted a policy allowing students not to participate in reciting the prayer. Students could either remain silent or be excused entirely. The New York Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s judgment, and the parents then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court considered the following question:
Does a school board requirement that public school students recite a government composed prayer violate the First Amendment's no establishment of religion clause?
By a 6 to 1 vote (Justices Felix Frankfurter and Byron White not participating), the Supreme Court overturned the judgment of the New York courts and ruled that requiring public school students to recite a government-composed prayer is a violation of the no establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Hugo Black wrote: "It is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as part of a religious program carried on by government.” He addressed the school board’s new policy allowing students to remain silent or leave the room: “The establishment clause, unlike the free exercise 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 these laws operate directly to coerce nonobserving individuals or not.” He continued: “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. But the purposes underlying the establishment clause go much further than that. Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.” Black speaks about the Founders and the establishment clause: “The establishment clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its ‘unhallowed perversion’ by a civil magistrate. Another purpose of the establishment clause rested upon an awareness of the historical fact that governmentally established religions and religious persecutions go hand in hand.” Finally, he addresses the argument that some might find the Court’s ruling an indication of hostility toward religion or prayer. He points out that if there were no law requiring a certain prayer to be used, those who wanted to could still “find a place in which (they) could pray when (they) pleased to the God of (their) faith in the language (they) chose.” He goes on to explain that the Bill of Rights “tried to put an end to governmental control of religion and of prayer (but) was not written to destroy either.”
Justice William O. Douglas concurred with the Court’s judgment and wrote a concurring opinion in which he examined the many “aids" to religion that are provided by government such as chaplains in both houses of Congress and in the armed services. However, Douglas notes, the Bill of Rights does not allow either a state or the federal government “to adopt an official prayer and penalize anyone who would not utter it."
Justice Potter Stewart was the only dissenter. In his dissenting opinion, he wrote: "The Court has misapplied a great constitutional principle. I cannot see how an ‘official religion’ is established by letting those who want to say a prayer say it. On the contrary, I think that to deny the wish of these school children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our nation." He cites several examples of how government already fosters religion, including the fact that since 1865 the words "IN GOD WE TRUST" have appeared on our coins. He sums up his dissent by quoting the words of Justice Douglas in the 1952 Supreme Court case of Zorach v. Clauson, "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."
- Bill of Rights Institute: Engel v. Vitale (1962)
- University Press of Kansas: The Battle over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America, April 2007, ISBN 978-0-7007-1525-4 (cloth)