A half century without school prayer
“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee and we beg thy blessing upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”
- Official school prayer
N.Y. State Bd. of Regents, 1962
“As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in schools.”
There are a handful of landmark Supreme Court cases that Americans can cite by name. Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda v. Arizona and Bush v. Gore are among the cases whose names are as well known as their rulings. There are other cases whose holdings are well known even though their names are not.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of one such case — Engel v. Vitale. The New York State Board of Regents had adopted the prayer laid out in the quote above. It believed that the prayer was non-specific enough to encompass all religions and it required that the prayer be recited at the beginning of the school day. Several parents in Hyde Park, N.Y., (including Steven Engel who, as the first plaintiff listed, has his name forever attached to the case) sued the principal and the Board of Education in Hyde Park alleging that the prayer violated the clause of the United States Constitution forbidding the government from establishing an official religion.
The parents were unsuccessful at all levels of the New York State judicial system and appealed their case to the Supreme Court. The Court had issued several landmark decisions in the years leading up to the Engel case and found itself in a period of turmoil when the case came before it. Justice Charles Evans Whittaker, who had been on the court only five years, had just retired citing poor health and exhaustion. Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had been on the court since 1939 had just suffered a stroke and was unable to participate in cases.
So it was that seven justices, three appointed by Democratic presidents (Roosevelt and Truman) and four appointed by a Republican (Eisenhower) had to decide whether prayer in public schools was permissible. By a vote of 6–1, the court held that the prayer was impermissible and ignited a half-century of debate.
Justice Black issued the opinion in the case. Immediately putting down the argument by the school that the prayer was non-denominational and that it was not a requirement, he stated that, “The Establishment Clause, unlike the Free Exercise Clause, does not depend upon any showing of direct government 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.” He concluded, “a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.”
The lone dissenting voice came from Justice Potter Stewart. He noted that the Supreme Court, Congress and other governmental institutions began their sessions with prayer and then stated, “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.”
Engel was just the beginning of a long line of cases dealing with prayer in schools or in other governmental settings, nearly all of which were controversial. Lawyer and writer Michael Trachtman, author of The Supremes Greatest Hits notes that Engel and another case that followed it have become, “substantially distorted.” He writes, “Neither case, as is so often stated, takes God out of the schools or mandates that schools be ‘religion free zones.’ [They] in no way restrict the teaching of religion as a subject of academic study, and they do not prohibit individual students from saying a prayer, distributing religious literature, talking to students about their religious beliefs, forming Bible study groups, or wearing religious clothing, subject to the same rules of orderly conduct and school administration as other, nonreligious behavior. The Supreme Court placed its focus on the role of government in promoting religion not the role of students in practicing religion.”
Still, 50 years after Engel was decided, the difference between Black’s “union of government and religion” and Stewart’s “sharing in the spiritual heritage of our nation” remains the fundamental dichotomy between the two sides of this issue.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.