Engel v. Vitale,
370 U.S. 421 (1962)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)

Engel v. Vitale

No. 468

Argued April 3, 1962

Decided June 25, 1962

370 U.S. 421


Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment of any law "respecting an establishment of religion," which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, state officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public schools of the State at the beginning of each school day -- even if the prayer is denominationally neutral and pupils who wish to do so may remain silent or be excused from the room while the prayer is being recited. Pp. 370 U. S. 422-436.

10 N.Y.2d 174, 176 N.E.2d 579, reversed.

Page 370 U. S. 422

Primary Holding

The state cannot hold prayers in public schools, even if it is not required and not tied to a particular religion.


The state board of regents in New York wrote a voluntary prayer to Almighty God that was intended to open each school day. A group of organizations joined forces in challenging the prayer, including families and institutions dedicated to the Jewish faith. They claimed that this violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, but the New York Court of Appeals rejected their arguments. While nearly half of the state governors in the U.S. contributed to an amicus brief asking the Court to uphold this finding that the prayer was constitutional, several national Jewish organizations submitting opposing briefs seeking its invalidation.

Procedural History

New York Supreme Court - 191 N.Y.S.2d 453 (Sup. Ct. 1959)

Judgment for the defendants. The Establishment Clause does not prohibit this use of a voluntary prayer in school.

New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division - 206 N.Y.S.2d 183 (App. Div. 1960)

Affirmed. The state is not imposing a religious belief by using this prayer.

New York Court of Appeals - 176 N.E.2d 579 (N.Y. 1961)

Affirmed. The highest court in the state found that there was a sufficient separation of church and state so that the First Amendment was not infringed.



  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Tom C. Clark
  • John Marshall Harlan II
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.

Relying on historical analysis, Black emphasized the significance of separating church from state and identified a school prayer as a religious activity, no matter its specific wording. As a result, the state of New York had used its power to promote a certain set of religious beliefs by encouraging children to comply with its own. Black was not persuaded that the general wording of the prayer and the fact that the prayer was voluntary were enough to insulate it from the First Amendment. He observed that not every religion recognizes a God, so some are necessarily excluded even with this wording.


  • William Orville Douglas (Author)


  • Potter Stewart (Author)


  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • Felix Frankfurter

Case Commentary

While students theoretically could have opted out of participating in the prayer, the majority and proponents of its decision recognized that children are unlikely to choose not to engage in a teacher-led activity. The outcome might be different if the case had involved an educational institution with adult students.

The Court's general antipathy toward prayer in schools would be extended by later decisions that struck down clergy-led prayers at graduation ceremonies, student-led prayers at football games, and time set aside during the school day for prayer or meditation.

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