On this date in 1962, the landmark Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale declaring even non-denominational school prayer to be unconstitutional was handed down, with a decision of 6 to 1.
In 1951, the New York State Board of Regents had approved a short, “nondenominational” prayer which they offered to school districts for voluntary classroom use, believing that a connection to the nation's “spiritual heritage” could help instill civic values and fight communism. The prayer read, “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.”
The Union Free School District No. 9 in New Hyde Park directed the local principal to have this prayer “said aloud by each class in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of the school day.” A group of parents, backed by Jewish and Ethical Culture groups, brought a lawsuit against the district in 1960, saying that the prayer was not in line with their and their children's religious beliefs.
The law was upheld in the state courts, but after arguments on April 3, 1962, the Supreme Court overturned the law, with only Justice Potter Stewart dissenting, and established a major precedent in the limiting of prayer in schools.
Engel v Vitale
“When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.”
—Majority decision, written by Justice Hugo Black
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