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Engel v. Vitale in 1962: Summary, Facts & Decision

Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk
The following lesson will cover the case of Engel v. Vitale to determine the place of religious prayer in public schools. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

Summary

I'm sure all of us who went to elementary, middle, or high school in the United States remember having to stand up every day and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. It probably wasn't a big deal for most. We all did it without really giving much attention to what we were saying. Most of us probably didn't even know that the seemingly innocuous phrase 'under God' wasn't always in the Pledge of Allegiance. That little phrase, however, does have a big meaning for some because not everyone in the U.S. believes in a higher power or in the same higher power.

Now imagine reciting something that doesn't just insert a short phrase of 'under God', but rather is a flat out state-sanctioned prayer. Chances are we might take a step back and ask if this is something a public school should be doing. This is exactly what happened in the Supreme Court case of Engel v. Vitale (1962).

The case concerned a lawsuit whereby a group of Jewish parents, including father Steven Engel, sued the New York state's Board of Regents, New York's highest educational body. The board had written and authorized a voluntary nondenominational prayer that could be recited by students at the beginning of each school day. Engel argued that opening a school day with a prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Facts

When someone forces us to do something, we often react more negatively than if we had a choice. For example, remember how annoying it was to be told we HAD to do chores when we were younger? In the case of Engel v. Vitale, the prayer that was recited at the start of each day was voluntary. So 'force' wasn't the primary concern of the case. The primary concern was whether or not the reading of a nondenominational prayer at the start of the school day violated the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment, which in part says, 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion'.

The prayer read as follows:

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

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