In 1962, in Engel v. Vitale, the U.S. Supreme Court, in one of the most controversial decisions of the Warren Court era, held school-led prayer unconstitutional for violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Engel was the first school prayer case heard by the Court, but it was not starting from scratch in considering the issue of governmentally sponsored religious practices. The Court had previously upheld against the assertion of an Establishment Clause violation a state program that involved busing children to parochial schools. It subsequently struck down an arrangement by which religious teachers entered state schools and provided religious instruction. And then, the Court upheld a time-release program that allowed students to leave campus to receive religious training. The Court had declared the existence of a wall separating church and state, but the serpentine nature of the wall generated more questions than answers about the scope of the Establishment Clause.
The constitutionality of state sponsored prayer raised by Engel, brought a new angle of consideration to the question of how far the Court might go in accommodating religion. The Board of Regents of the State of New York had authorized a non-denominational prayer for recitation in public schools. The prayer read: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers and our country.” School districts were not required to use the prayer and children were not required to repeat it, but if schools elected to offer a prayer, this was the only one they could use.
Justice Hugo Black wrote the Court’s 7-1 opinion and held that neither the nature of the nondenominational prayer nor the fact that it was voluntary could save it from violating the Establishment Clause. Black wrote that the great vice of a state prayer created, organized and orchestrated by school officials—employees of the state—was that it brought to bear in the classroom the full “power, prestige and financial support” of the state. The “indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform” and participate in governmental prayer meant that the practice was “wholly inconsistent” with the Constitution.
Black declared that the constitutional prohibition on laws respecting an establishment of religion “must 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 part of a religious program carried on by government.” The element of “indirect coercion,” Black indicated, was precisely what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had in mind as they railed against governmental assistance to religion.
Justice Black’s opinion for the Court was not anti-religious. A man of faith, he said, consistent with the views of Jefferson and Madison, that “the prayer of each man must be his own.” Prayer, he pointed out, was clearly a religious practice. One of the “underlying purposes” of the Establishment Clause, he explained, was to “prevent the union” of government and religion, because their fusion “tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.” He emphasized, as Jefferson and Madison had, the historical fact that “governmentally established religions and religious persecutions go hand in hand.”
The “indirect coercive” element of state-led prayer could be seen in the fact that attendance is compulsory. Children are psychologically immature, with underdeveloped faculties of resistance and consent and thus especially vulnerable to peer pressure. Students, the Court noted, are free to pray on their own, as a matter of the free exercise of religion. The constitutional prohibition simply precludes governmental officials from organizing and leading prayer.
The long-standing practice of school prayer, particularly in the South and East, was not willingly abandoned. Opposition to the decision was manifested in a variety of ways. Bumper stickers on automobiles urged impeachment of Supreme Court Justices. In the days after Engel was announced, more than fifty constitutional amendments were introduced in Congress to overrule or limit the decision. In the years since, however, the efforts to amend the Establishment Clause to permit school-led prayer have proved futile. Members of Congress in both the House and Senate sought, largely for political purposes, to assert a national need for prayer in the schools, but a majority has never emerged in either house to alter the Establishment Clause.
The Court’s opinion had prominent defenders. President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic elected to the Oval Office, supported the decision and noted that children were free to pray at home. In any case, compliance with the ruling has remained uneven. Some two dozen states over the years have attempted to provide for voluntary and silent prayers at the beginning of the school day.
The Court’s ruling in Engel has been consistently affirmed. In 1985, in Wallace v. Jaffree, the Court struck down an Alabama statute requiring each school day to begin with a moment of silent prayer or meditation. The Court held that states may not require silent prayer, although meditation is permitted so long as states do not expressly try to promote religion in the classroom.
The ongoing efforts to promote prayer in the schools, at graduation exercises and on the football field, continue to fuel controversy and headlines about governmentally sponsored religious activities. Readers of newspapers know that the issue is before the Supreme Court this Term.
David Adler is president of The Alturas Institute, created to advance American Democracy through promotion of the Constitution, civic education, equal protection and gender equality. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His scholarly writings have been quoted by the US Supreme Court, lower federal courts and by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.