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Engle V. Vitale

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Engle v. Vitale was the first case brought to the Supreme Court that used the establishment clause to remove religious activities that until this point had been used as a part of public observances. The First Amendment bars any enforcement of any law "respecting an establishment of religion" and the Fourteenth Amendment makes this applicable to the States. For that reason, state officials can not write an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public schools, even if the prayer is nondenominational and students who wish to remain silent or be excused are allowed to do so during the recitation of the prayer.

The parents of ten students brought this issue to the New York State Court maintaining that the use of the official prayer in the public schools was "contrary to the beliefs, religions, or religious practices of both themselves and their children." The question that was reviewed by the Supreme Court of The United States was whether New York overstepped the boundaries when they financed a religious exercise. The New York Court said that "the prayer given does not conform to all of the tenets of the Jewish, Unitarian, and Ethical Culture groups. The Supreme Court ruled that, though the prayer was nondenominational and students had the option of whether or not to recite the prayer and not be penalized for failure to do so, the state of New York and the school board had violated the Constitution of the United States and the rights of the students attending the public schools. Though many Americans still disagree with the verdict of the court, the ruling still stands today.


The opinion of the Court was delivered by Justice Black. The Court said: "Shortly after the practice of reciting the Regents' prayer was adopted by the School District, the parents of ten pupils brought this action in a New York State Court insisting that use of this official prayer in the public schools was contrary to the beliefs, religions, or religious practices of both themselves and their children. The New York Court of Appeals, over the dissents of Judges Dye and Fuld, sustained an order of the lower state courts which had upheld the power of New York to use the Regents' prayer as a part of the daily procedures of its public schools so long as the schools did not compel any pupil to join in the prayer over his or his parents' objection. We granted certiorari to review this important decision involving rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments."

The court continued by saying, "We think that by using pubic school system to encourage recitation of the Regents' prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent 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 blessings of the Almighty. The nature of such a prayer has always been religious; none of the respondents has denied this. 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 the 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."

The Court concluded by saying, "There can be no doubt that New York's state prayer program officially establishes the religious beliefs embodied in the Regents' prayer. The respondents' argument to the contrary, which is largely based upon the contention that the Regents' prayer is non-denominational and the fact that the program, as modified and approved by state courts, does not require all pupils to recite the prayer but permits those who wish to do so to remain silent or be excused from the room, ignores the essential nature of the program's constitutional defects. It has been argued that to apply the Constitution in such a way as to prohibit state laws respecting an establishment of religious services in public schools is to indicate hostility toward religion or toward prayer. Nothing, of course, could be more wrong. It is true that New York's establishment of its Regents' prayer as an officially approved religious doctrine of that State does not amount to a total establishment of one particular religious sect to the exclusion of all others Ð'- that, indeed, the governmental endorsement of that prayer seems relatively insignificant when compared to the governmental encroachments upon religion which were commonplace 200 years ago."

The dissenting opinions were given by Justice Stewart. He said, "A local school board in New York has



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