Engel v. Vitale Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Students at a San Antonio high school pray, two days after the Engel v. Vitale ruling that held that the recitation of an official prayer in public schools violated the First Amendment. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Students at a San Antonio high school pray, two days after the Engel v. Vitale ruling that held that the recitation of an official prayer in public schools violated the First Amendment. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

Supreme Court decision

By: Hugo L. Black; William O. Douglas; Potter Stewart

Date: June 25, 1962

Source: Black, Hugo L., William O. Douglas, and Potter Stewart Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421. Available online at http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=case... ; website home page: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com (accessed March 15, 2003).

About the Authors: Hugo Lafayette Black (1886–1971) was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1937 after serving two terms in the U.S. Senate. His term was generally distinguished by his support of civil rights. William O. Douglas (1898–1980) was an activist, liberal justice who served longer on the Supreme Court than any justice in history. Potter Stewart (1885–1985) was a pragmatist and a moderate on the Court who, in reference to pornography, coined the famous statement that although he could not define it, "I know it when I see it."


The First Amendment states, in part, that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." However, what exactly the founders meant by that clause has occasioned debate throughout much of the twentieth century. Many of the original states had a state-supported church, with taxes being paid to support it, but the nation's founders strongly believed in keeping the state out of the church's business and vice-versa. The issue of separation of church and state did not arise to any great extent during the nineteenth century because Congress did not enact many laws that directly affected religion and because the Bill of Rights, of which the First Amendment is a part, was held to apply only to the federal government. Thus, it did not affect the states, which generally had greater involvement in issues of religion.

In the twentieth century, this began to change. In 1925, the First Amendment was found applicable to the states, so the actions of the state as they affected religion became a constitutional issue. Education increased in importance, as by the middle of the twentieth century the expectation became that everyone would graduate from high school. Religion, too, grew in importance during the Cold War with the atheistic communists of the Soviet Union. The phrase "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, said in most schools, as part of this struggle, and few people publicly questioned the promotion of religion by schools with the Pledge and a prayer to start most days. One of those few filed suit, and the case came before the Supreme Court as Engel v. Vitale.


In Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled that mandated prayer in the public schools was unconstitutional. Although the form of prayer in question was nonsectarian and did not promote any particular religion, it promoted a monotheistic, Western view of religion, even among atheists and agnostics. The state of New York argued further that the prayer was voluntary. The Court, though, rejected this argument, noting that the pressures of conformity forced recitation and that if freedom of religion means freedom to not have a religion, then any prayer interferes. The Court's ruling provoked a firestorm of controversy throughout America. Many conservative commentators, from the 1960s to today, link the beginning of the downfall of America with this ruling. This decision, along with ones allowing flag-burning, have provoked more attempts at constitutional amendments reversing them than any other Court decisions.

The next year, the Supreme Court struck down a school program of Bible readings and recitation of the Lord's Prayer. The Court upheld the loaning of textbooks to religious schools, however, as this did not "excessively entangle" the church and the state. Similarly, a tax exemption for churches was allowed for similar reasons. The state has generally been allowed to issue rules affecting religious issues if no "excessive entanglement" results, if the law has a secular purpose, and the rule neither hinders nor helps religion. Laws allowing or mandating a moment of silence, school prayers, and the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools, even though popular in some areas, have nearly always been struck down as violating the First Amendment.

Primary Source: Engel v. Vitale [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: Black, who wrote the majority opinion, surveys the history of the state's involvement in religion and holds that the state's promulgation of an officially allowable prayer to start the schoolday violates the First Amendment. Douglas concurs, arguing that any state financing or support of religion is illegal. Stewart dissents, noting that the phrase "wall of separation" is nowhere found in the Constitution.

Mr. Justice Black delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent Board of Education … acting in its official capacity under state law, directed the School District's principal to cause the following prayer to be said aloud by each class in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of each school day:

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.

This daily procedure was adopted on the recommendation of the State Board of Regents, a governmental agency created by the State Constitution to which the New York Legislature has granted broad supervisory, executive, and legislative powers over the State's public school system.…

There can, of course, be no doubt that New York's program of daily classroom invocation of God's blessings as prescribed in the Regents' prayer is a religious activity. It is a solemn avowal of divine faith and supplication for the blessings of the Almighty.… We … think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.

It is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America.…

It is an unfortunate fact of history that when some of the very groups which had most strenuously opposed the established Church of England found themselves sufficiently in control of colonial governments in this country to write their own prayers into law, they passed laws making their own religion the official religion of their respective colonies.… In 1785–1786, those opposed to the established Church, led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who, though themselves not members of any of these dissenting religious groups, opposed all religious establishments by law on grounds of principle, obtained the enactment of the famous "Virginia Bill for Religious Liberty" by which all religious groups were placed on an equal footing so far as the State was concerned. Similar though less far-reaching legislation was being considered and passed in other States.

By the time of the adoption of the Constitution, our history shows that there was a widespread awareness among many Americans of the dangers of a union of Church and State. These people knew, some of them from bitter personal experience, that one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lay in the Government's placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious services.… The Constitution was in tended to avert a part of this danger by leaving the government of this country in the hands of the people rather than in the hands of any monarch. But this safeguard was not enough. Our Founders were no more willing to let the content of their prayers and their privilege of praying whenever they pleased be influenced by the ballot box than they were to let these vital matters of personal conscience depend upon the succession of monarchs. The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say—that the people's religious must not be subjected to the pressures of government for change each time a new political administration is elected to office. Under that Amendment's prohibition against governmental establishment of religion, as reinforced by the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, government in this country, be it state or federal, is without power to prescribe by law any particular form of prayer which is to be used as an official prayer in carrying on any program of governmentally sponsored religious activity.

There can be no doubt that New York's state prayer program officially establishes the religious beliefs embodied in the Regents' prayer. The respondents' argument to the contrary, which is largely based upon the contention that the Regents' prayer is "non-denominational" and the fact that the program, as modified and approved by state courts, does not require all pupils to recite the prayer but permits those who wish to do so to remain silent or be excused from the room, ignores the essential nature of the program's constitutional defects. Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observance on the part of the students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause, as it might from the Free Exercise Clause, of the First Amendment, both of which are operative against the States by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although these two clauses may in certain instances overlap, they forbid two quite different kinds of governmental encroachment upon religious freedom. 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 those laws operate directly to coerce nonobserving individuals or not. This is not to say, of course, that laws officially prescribing a particular form of religious worship do not involve coercion of such individuals. 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.… 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.… It was in large part to get completely away from this sort of systematic religious persecution that the Founders brought into being our Nation, our Constitution, and our Bill of Rights with its prohibition against any governmental establishment of religion. The New York laws officially prescribing the Regents' prayer are inconsistent both with the purposes of the Establishment Clause and with the Establishment Clause itself.

It has been argued that to apply the Constitution in such a way as to prohibit state laws respecting an establishment of religious services in public schools is to indicate a hostility toward religion or toward prayer.… It is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance.

It is true that New York's establishment of its Regents' prayer as an officially approved religious doctrine of that State does not amount to a total establishment of one particular religious sect to the exclusion of all others.… To those who may sub scribe to the view that because the Regents' official prayer is so brief and general there can be no danger to religious freedom in its governmental establishment, however, it may be appropriate to say in the words of James Madison, the author of the First Amendment:

[I]t is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.… Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? …

Mr. Justice Douglas, concurring.

It is customary in deciding a constitutional question to treat it in its narrowest form. Yet at times the setting of the question gives it a form and content which no abstract treatment could give. The point for decision is whether the Government can constitutionally finance a religious exercise. Our system at the federal and state levels is presently honeycombed with such financing. Nevertheless, I think it is an unconstitutional undertaking whatever form it takes.…

Mr. Justice Stewart, dissenting.

A local school board in New York has provided that those pupils who wish to do so may join in a brief prayer at the beginning of each school day, acknowledging their dependence upon God and asking His blessing upon them and upon their parents, their teachers, and their country. The Court today decides that in permitting this brief nondenominational prayer the school board has violated the Constitution of the United States. I think this decision is wrong.

The Court does not hold, nor could it, that New York has interfered with the free exercise of anybody's religion.…

With all respect, I think 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.

… For we deal here not with the establishment of a state church, which would, of course, be constitutionally impermissible, but with whether school children who want to begin their day by joining in prayer must be prohibited from doing so. Moreover, I think that the Court's task, in this as in all areas of constitutional adjudication, is not responsibly aided by the uncritical invocation of metaphors like the "wall of separation," a phrase nowhere to be found in the Constitution. What is relevant to the issue here is not the history of an established church in sixteenth century England or in eighteenth century America, but the history of the religious traditions of our people, reflected in countless practices of the institutions and officials of our government.

At the opening of each day's Session of this Court we stand, while one of our officials invokes the protection of God.… The Court today says that the state and federal governments are without constitutional power to prescribe any particular form of words to be recited by any group of the American people on any subject touching religion.… In 1954 Congress added a phrase to the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag so that it now contains the words "one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

… Since 1865 the words "IN GOD WE TRUST" have been impressed on our coins.

Countless similar examples could be listed, but there is no need to belabor the obvious. It was all summed up by this Court just ten years ago in a single sentence: "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." …

I do not believe that this Court, or the Congress, or the President has by the actions and practices I have mentioned established an "official religion" in violation of the Constitution. And I do not believe the State of New York has done so in this case. What each has done has been to recognize and to follow 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" when they proclaimed the freedom and independence of this brave new world.

I dissent.

Further Resources


Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ball, Howard, and Phillip J. Cooper. Of Power and Right: Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and America's Constitutional Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Eastland, Terry. Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court: The Cases That Define the Debate over Church and State. Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1993.

Frank, John Paul. Inside Justice Hugo L. Black: The Letters. Austin, Tex.: Jamail Center for Legal Research, the University of Texas at Austin, 2000.


Blackmun, Harry A. "Certain Southerners on the Supreme Court." The Georgia Journal of Southern Legal History 1, no. 2, Fall/Winter 1991, 379–394.

Gerhardt, Michael J. "A Tale of Two Textualists: A Critical Comparison of Justices Black and Scalia." Boston University Law Review 74, no.1, January 1994, 25–66.


"Introduction to the Engel v. Vitale Court Case." Available online at ; website home page: http://www.usinfo.state.gov (accessed January 21, 2003).