For many years, a particular ritual marked the beginning of each school day all across America. Teachers led their students through the Pledge of Allegiance, a short prayer, the singing of "America" or "The Star-Spangled Banner," and possibly some readings from the Bible. The choice of ritual varied according to state law, local custom and the preferences of individual teachers or principals.

In New York, the state Board of Regents had prepared a "non-denominational" prayer for use in the public schools, trying to avoid anything that might offend one particular religious group or another. But in one school district a group of parents challenged the prayer as "contrary to the beliefs, religions, or religious practices of both themselves and their children." The state's highest court upheld the use of the prayer, on the grounds that state law did not force any student to join in the prayer over a parent's objections.

But the Supreme Court, in the following case, held the entire idea of a state-mandated or state-sponsored prayer, no matter how innocuous, as contrary to the spirit and command of the First Amendment's ban against the establishment of religion. As Justice Black noted, a prayer by any definition constituted a religious activity, and by promoting prayer, the state violated the Establishment Clause.

The Engel decision unleashed a firestorm of criticism against the Court that, although it has abated from time to time, has never died out. There are many people in the United States who believe that religion should be fostered by the state, and that while no particular doctrine or church should be established, the state ought to be friendly and supportive to all religions on an equal basis. In their opinion, school prayer was a natural and historic tradition in a country that styled itself "one nation under God."

The Court's decision has had its champions as well, and many people believe that the Court was absolutely right, and that religion is and should remain a private matter. Once a teacher starts to lead students in prayer, it is difficult for any particular student to object or to abstain, and thus he or she is forced to pray -- a clear violation of the First Amendment. The debate continues, and Engel, to both its detractors and supporters, is a landmark decision in the effort to define what freedom of religion means in a democratic society.

For further reading: Francis J. Sorauf, The Wall of Separation: The Constitutional Politics of Church and State (1976); J.H. Laubach, School Prayers: Congress, the Court and the Public (1969); Leonard W. Levy, The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment (1986).


Justice Black delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9, New Hyde Park, New York, 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 blessing 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. These state officials composed the prayer which they recommended and published as a part of their "Statement on Moral and Spiritual Training in the Schools," saying: "We believe that this Statement will be subscribed to by all men and women of good will, and we call upon all of them to aid in giving life to our program."...

We think that by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents' prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly incon-sistent with the Establishment Clause. 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 blessing of the Almighty. The nature of such a prayer has always been religious, none of the respondents has denied this and the trial court expressly so found...

The petitioners contend among other things that the state laws requiring or permitting use of the Regents' prayer must be struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause because that prayer was composed by governmental officials as a part of a governmental program to further religious beliefs. For this reason, petitioners argue, the State's use of the Regents' prayer in its public school system breaches the constitutional wall of separation between Church and State. We agree with that contention since 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. The Book of Common Prayer, which was created under governmental direction and which was approved by Acts of Parliament in 1548 and 1549, set out in minute detail the accepted form and content of prayer and other religious ceremonies to be used in the established, tax-supported Church of England...

Source: 370 U.S. 421 (1962).

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