Engel v. Vitale (1962)

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Engel v. Vitale is the 1962 landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down prayer in public schools.

The case presented squarely the question of whether a public school could sanction classroom prayers at a time when America was increasingly pluralistic and secular. As the legal historian Lucas Powe wrote in his study of the Warren Court, "the religiously pluralistic soci­ety of the 1960s … [garnered] terrific support" for the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause decisions prior to Engel. But that did not mean the Engel was not controversial. It was anything but.

Engel is widely viewed as one of the most unpopular decisions in Supreme Court history. Rodney K. Smith wrote in his study on public prayer, and the Constitution, public furor with the Engel decision was "without equal" in any prior Supreme Court case. Indeed, the American public's reaction to Engel included "public denunciations, picketing, billboards, letter-writing campaigns, editorials, resolutions, pay retaliation, legislation, vows of defiance, noncompliance, and calls to amend the Constitution, impeach the Justices, strip their jurisdiction, buy them Bibles, and inscribe the words 'In God We Trust' above their bench." On July 9, 1962, NEWSWEEK reported a "swell of indignation, astonishment, and bewilderment that swept across the nation" following the Engel decision. Fifteen States refused to discontinue prayer and Bible reading in their schools. A Gallup poll taken soon after the decision revealed seventy-nine percent of Americans disapproved of the ruling. The New York Times reported that, after Engel, the negative mail the Supreme Court received was "the largest in the tribunal's history."

Engel provoked outrage. It infuriated an American public, unlike most other Supreme Court decisions. But the American public that Engel vexed was more secular and pluralistic than it had ever been. Why did the Supreme Court's decision to end school prayer result in so much hostility?

Engel began with a classified ad. One parent was seeking support from others in challenging the New York school board's decision to begin the class with ecumenical prayer. The prayer was short: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country." And it was not mandatory. Students were allowed to leave the room, should they elect to do so. Steven Engel answered the ad.

The story Engel tells is one about the tension between church and state. Engel thus reveals a country that was shedding its Protestant identity for a pluralist conception of itself. The influx of immigrants and their religions altered the relationship between church and state. In 1850, the Catholic population in the United States stood at 1.6 million. Fifty years later, it was 12 million and by 1930 doubled to 24 million. After World War II, the Catholic population was more than 31 million and the largest denomination in the States. Compared to Catholics, Jews were a small population in the United States, only 3% in 1930. But the Holocaust laid claim to the American conscience and heightened Jewish support for religious freedom. As such, by the 1950s, America was a pluralist country. Across eighteen religious denominations were millions of members, and Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism emerged as the predominant religious identities in America.

The legal argument in Engel centered on the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause, found in the First Amendment. It reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." It omits any restrictions on the states. The debates in the state ratifying conventions and the First Congress clarified that the First Amendment's Establishment Clause was intended only as a limit on the federal government. The states could do as they pleased. The Constitution historian Kurt T. Lash writes, "the original Establishment Clause was intended to prohibit federal power over the subject of religion, reserving the same to the states." Accordingly, the original Establishment Clause embodied the principle of federalism–the federal government could neither establish religion at the federal level nor disestablish religion in the states.

However, Engel came after the Supreme Court decided to incorporate the Establishment Clause into the Fourteenth Amendment's due process protections. With the 1879 decision of Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court defended a strong separation of church and state. Then with Everson v. Board of Education in 1947, the Supreme Court constitutionalized the "wall of separation between church and State" by applying the Establishment Clause to State law. The separation between church and state was tested once again in 1948 with Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education. The case centered on the power of a state to aid religious instruction through its public school system. In another landmark decision, the Court invalidated the early-release program for religious instruction for violating the Establishment Clause. By the time the Supreme Court granted certiorari for Engel, the Establishment Clause was a firm limit on individual States' establishment of religion. The bridge the Court would have to cross was whether a public school classroom prayer–if optional and denominationally neutral–violated the Establishment Clause.

The Court decided 6–1 that reciting government-written prayers in public schools was a violation of the Establishment Clause (as applied to the States). Justice Black wrote the opinion for the Court, describing the long history of church and state and concluding that prayer is innately religious –that any prescription of such activity by a state flouts the Constitution. For the Court, it was no defense that the prayer was nondenominational and voluntary. The mere promotion of prayer ran the Establishment Clause afoul because any form of prayer was sufficient to trigger the principle of separation of church and state. In a concurring opinion, Justice Douglas wrote that the Establishment Clause should prevent state funding of religious schools. Justice Stewart, the lone dissent, argued for a narrower reading of the Establishment Clause. He believed that the clause was intended only to prevent the creation of state-sponsored churches; the Constitution could not prevent a public school from promoting a voluntary, nondenominational prayer.

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]