1962 June 25

Prayer in Public School Unconstitutional: “Engel v. Vitale”


In one of its most controversial decisions, the Supreme Court ruled on this day that officially sponsored school prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The prayer in question (see below) was a nondenominational prayer that had been created in an effort to avoid a constitutional challenge.

President John Kennedy praised the decision at his press conference on June 27, 1962, in one of the rare instances where a sitting president praised a highly controversial Supreme Court decision.

The decision immediately provoked dozens of proposed constitutional amendments in Congress to permit school prayer. Over more than 50 years, no school prayer amendment has ever passed. Religious conservatives have sought to sneak religious exercises back into public schools with “moment of silence” laws which would permit of brie period of silence at the beginning of each school day for prayer or other thoughts. The Supreme Court declared an Alabama moment of silence law unconstitutional on June 4, 1985 in Wallace v. Jaffree.

A year after Engel v. Vitale, the Court ruled that officially sponsored Bible reading in public schools was also unconstitutional, in Abingdon v. Schempp, on June 17, 1963.

The New York State “Nondenominational” Regents Prayer: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

Justice Hugo Black on the Establishment Clause: “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.”

Read: Bruce Dierenfield, The Battle Over School Prayer (2007)

Learn more about the Establishment Clause: https://www.aclu.org/religion-belief/establishment-clause-and-schools-legal-bulletin

Listen to the oral arguments in Engel: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1961/1961_468

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