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Politics

Study Notes

Engel v Vitale 1962

Level:
A Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

This Supreme Court case ruled that it was unconstitutional for state officials or schools to write an official school prayer and that it was unconstitutional to encourage its recitation in schools. Justices ruled that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. 

Background to the case:

A school in New Hyde Park, New York introduced a school prayer which read:

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

A group of families led by Stephen Engel, lodged a case against the constitutionality of the state’s prayer as it contradicted their religious beliefs and fell afoul of the First Amendment. Twenty two state governments signed a statement urging the New York Court of Appeals to uphold the constitutionality of school prayer.

The defence argued that the prayer was not in breach of the First Amendment as the prayer was voluntary and did not mention a specific religion. They also claimed that the wording was deliberately vague so it could not promote a specific faith. However, the Supreme Court found that the promotion of religion on the whole was a violation of the First Amendment, even if the promotion is not forced. In addition to this the Supreme Court ruled that claiming the prayer was voluntary is not a suitable defence as the reference to an ‘Almighty God’ ties the case to a family of faiths, so therefore is still a violation.

Decision:

The final decision of the court was the prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and as such was unconstitutional. It was handed down with a 6-1 ruling, with two Justices not taking part, as one had had a stroke.

The case was the basis of further rulings that prohibited the one-minute prayer or meditation time in Alabama schools; that clergy led prayer in graduation ceremonies was unconstitutional; and that student led prayer at school football was also unconstitutional.


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