Engel v. Vitale
370 U.S. 421 (1962)

  • A school board in New York passed a rule that each school day was to start with the students all reciting a school prayer.
    • The prayer said, “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.”
  • Several students and parents sued, claiming that the forced speech was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment.
  • The Trial Court found the prayer constitutional. The parents appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that the prayer was non-denominational and was not mandatory, so it wasn’t a violation of the Establishment Clause.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. The parents appealed.
  • The New York Supreme Court affirmed. The parents appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed, and found the prayer to be unconstitutional.
    • The US Supreme Court found that government-directed prayer in public schools, even if it is denominationally neutral and non-mandatory, violates the Establishment Clause.
      • The Court found that even though the prayer was not mandatory, it was coercive, and that amounted to a promotion of religion.
      • The Court found that even though the prayer attempted to be non-denominational, it was specific to monotheistic religions, and so was discriminatory.
  • In a dissent, it was argued that a similar statement appears in the Pledge of Allegiance (“one nation under God”), and on US money (“In God we trust”), so how could this be a violation of the 1st Amendment when those aren’t?
  • Conversely, in Marsh v. Chamber (463 U.S. 783 (1983)), the US Supreme Court found that it was not a violation of the Establishment Clause to open sessions of the Nebraska State Legislature with a prayer.