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Facts and Case Summary: Engel v. Vitale

Facts and case summary for Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)
School-sponsored prayer in public schools is unconstitutional.

FACTS

A New York State law required public schools to open each day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a nondenominational prayer in which the students recognized their dependence upon God. The law allowed students to absent themselves from this activity if they found it objectionable. A parent sued on behalf of his child, arguing that the law violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as made applicable to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

ISSUE

Whether school-sponsored nondenominational prayer in public schools violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

RULING

Yes (8-1)

REASONING

The majority, via Justice Black, held that school-sponsored prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The majority stated that the provision allowing students to absent themselves from this activity did not make the law constitutional because the purpose of the First Amendment was to prevent government interference with religion. The majority noted that religion is very important to a vast majority of the American people. Since Americans adhere to a wide variety of beliefs, it is not appropriate for the government to endorse any particular belief system. The majority noted that wars, persecutions, and other destructive measures often arose in the past when the government involved itself in religious affairs.

CONCURRENCE

Justice Douglas
In his concurrence, Justice Douglas took an even broader view of the Establishment Clause, arguing that any type of public promotion of religion, including giving financial aid to religious schools, violates the Establishment Clause.

DISSENT

Justice Stewart
Justice Stewart argued in his dissent that the Establishment Clause was only meant to prohibit the establishment of a state-sponsored church, such as the Church of England, and not prohibit all types of government insolvent with religion. In particular, he found that the nondenominational nature of the prayer and the "absentee" provision removed constitutional challenges.