Engel v. Vitale


Significance: The Supreme Court, by invalidating a nondenominational prayer, first banned prayers in public schools as an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Justice Hugo L. Black wrote the 7-1 opinion, in which Justice Byron R. White did not participate. The Supreme Court invalidated a twenty-two-word nondenominational school prayer composed by New York's educational authority as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Having previously applied the prohibition against the establishment of religion to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), the Court needed only to clarify what it meant by a “wall of separation between church and state.” Engel raised the wall much higher. Black provided a lengthy review of British and American history to justify his decision but did not cite any specific Court precedent. He opined that this decision would not block all public expression of religion but held that schools could not sponsor such expressions. Although the Court was supported by a number of groups that filed amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs, when it sided with those who wanted a high wall, it provoked an intense reaction from many conservative religious groups. The storm of criticism did not deter the Court, which persisted in its position. Justice Potter Stewart was the lone dissenter, accusing the majority of misreading the First Amendment's religious clauses, which forbade only governmental establishment of an official church. To do otherwise was to open up unnecessary conflicts with the free exercise provision that Stewart thought was preeminent.