Engel v. Vitale

On this date in 1962, the landmark Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale declaring even nondenominational 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 on Long Island directed principals 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 the American Civil Liberties Union and Jewish and Ethical Culture groups, sued the district in 1960. The plaintiffs were Steven and Thelma Engel, Daniel and Ruth Lichtenstein, Monroe and Julia Lerner, Lawrence and Frances Roth and Leonore Lyons. William Vitale Jr. was the school board president.

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.

Freedom From Religion Foundation