Engel v. Vitale (1962)

Classroom PrayerAfter Everson v. Board of Education (1947), fifteen years passed before the next important ‘religion and public schools’ case made its way to the Supreme Court. Whereas Everson dealt with transportation, Engel v. Vitale (1962) addressed the role of the supernatural in the classroom itself. 

To this day, many evangelicals blame this case for the collapse of American culture. After the highest court in the land “kicked God out of public school” came the sex, the drugs, the decadence, and the disrespect.

Just think – we could have avoided disco altogether if nine old men in robes could have restrained their humanistic tendencies for just a few more decades. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

In the 1950s, the Board of Regents of the State of New York put together a “voluntary,” non-denominational prayer to be recited by students each day. It was fairly tame:

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.

But then, a prayer is a prayer. 

A small group of parents (including Steven Engel, who was Jewish) vocalized their objections to this prayer. The district argued that the prayer was technically voluntary, and that participation was protected by the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment. 

The parents sued, thus landing school board president William Vitale on the other side of the italicized “v.” The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which decided Engel v. Vitale in 1962.

The Court determined that New York’s law promoting prayer – any prayer – in public schools was unconstitutional. The Court’s majority opinion was written by Justice Hugo Black. It’s worth a read, especially since it lays the foundation for numerous subsequent decisions.

Among other things, these parents challenged the constitutionality… of this particular prayer on the ground that these actions of official governmental agencies violate that part of the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution which commands that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" -- a command which was "made applicable to the State of New York by the Fourteenth Amendment…" 

That’s called “incorporation” – the application of the Bill of Rights to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment. It’s largely assumed today, but developed over time through a series of 20th century Court decisions. 

The New York Court of Appeals… upheld the power of New York to use the Regents' prayer… so long as the schools did not compel any pupil to join in the prayer over his or his parents' objection. We granted certiorari to review this important decision involving rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. 

In other words, lower courts had embraced the idea that the prayer was acceptable because it was technically voluntary. “Granted certiorari” is a fancy way of saying the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. In Latin, certiorari means something like, “OK – inform us!”

The number of petitions to the highest court in the land would quickly prove crippling if Justices were compelled to hear all of them. In most circumstances, then, it is entirely up to the Court which cases they decide to hear and which they don’t.  

We think that, by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents' prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York's program of daily classroom invocation of God's blessings as prescribed in the Regents' prayer is a religious activity…

The Board of Regents as amicus curiae, the respondents, and intervenors all concede the religious nature of prayer, but seek to distinguish this prayer because it is based on our spiritual heritage…

Unlike your typical television courtroom drama, most Supreme Court cases prompt submissions of multiple amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” briefs. Pretty much any interested party can provide research, arguments, background, etc., for the Court to consider – even if they’re not directly involved in the case. 

Black’s point here is that no one involved was disputing that the prayer was religious. Instead, they were arguing that it was OK that it was religious because Americans are largely people of faith, historically speaking. In short, supporters wanted to frame the prayer as more like a Christmas Tree than a Cross.

Justice Black then dives into a history lesson on the subject, as he was wont to do. The gist of it is that America was largely founded by people trying to get away from other people – especially those in government or other positions of power – telling them how to pray and what to believe. Government efforts to standardize or mandate faith – however well-intentioned or ‘voluntary’ – repeatedly caused more problems than they solved.

It is an unfortunate fact of history that, when some of the very groups which had most strenuously opposed the established Church of England found themselves sufficiently in control… they passed laws making their own religion the official religion of their respective colonies…

Ah, history and its uncomfortable lessons… We fight the power until we become the power, at which point abuse of authority suddenly seems like a really good idea – because unlike those other losers, WE’RE RIGHT.

By the time of the adoption of the Constitution, our history shows that there was a widespread awareness among many Americans of the dangers of a union of Church and State. These people knew, some of them from bitter personal experience, that one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lay in the Government's placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious services. 

Here To HelpThe “Wall of Separation” is not just about “protecting” the government from religious influence; it’s about protecting individuals and their faith from the damage government inherently does to everything it “improves.”

They knew the anguish, hardship and bitter strife that could come when zealous religious groups struggled with one another to obtain the Government's stamp of approval from each King, Queen, or Protector that came to temporary power. The Constitution was intended to avert a part of this danger by leaving the government of this country in the hands of the people…

But this safeguard was not enough… The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say -- that the people's religions must not be subjected to the pressures of government for change each time a new political administration is elected to office… 

Here comes the best part. You might want to grab a Slurpee and some popcorn: 

But the purposes underlying the Establishment Clause go much further than that. 

Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion. 

Consider this argument for a moment. Once your personal walk with God becomes just another parking meter demanding quarters or a building code with which you must comply, it’s no longer your reach for the divine – it’s merely another temporal hoop through which you must jump. 

Didn’t someone relatively significant die to overcome this sort of entrenched legalism at some point?

The history of governmentally established religion, both in England and in this country, showed that whenever government had allied itself with one particular form of religion, the inevitable result had been that it had incurred the hatred, disrespect and even contempt of those who held contrary beliefs. 

That same history showed that many people had lost their respect for any religion that had relied upon the support of government to spread its faith. 

Think about modern politicians and bureaucrats gradually replacing your pastor, cell group, or Holy Spirit. Presidential Debates might include questions about whether or not baptism requires immersion. We’d add State Questions to the ballot to determine whether internet porn counts as adultery and decide if dogs go to heaven. The Governor and State Finance Director could issue directives regarding how much tithe God intends for you to pay (based on gross or net?) and to whom. And that’s just the stuff for Christians – wait until they “support” other faiths as well!

That may sound like it’s a far cry from “we beg Thy blessings upon us,” but whether you’re a lefty or a righty, you know how slippery government slopes tend to be. Chutes and ladders, kids – and someone’s put Vaseline all over both. 

Lest we think the Court is suggesting that government should instead be in some way hostile towards faith, Black goes again to history. On behalf of the Court, he acknowledges not only the role of religion, but it’s power in shaping the best of the New World’s aspirations. 

It has been argued that to apply the Constitution in such a way as to prohibit state laws respecting an establishment of religious services in public schools is to indicate a hostility toward religion or toward prayer. Nothing, of course, could be more wrong. 

The history of man is inseparable from the history of religion. And perhaps it is not too much to say that, since the beginning of that history, many people have devoutly believed that "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of." 

It was doubtless largely due to men who believed this that there grew up a sentiment that caused men to… come to this country filled with the hope that they could find a place in which they could pray when they pleased to the God of their faith in the language they chose. 

And there were men of this same faith in the power of prayer who led the fight for adoption of our Constitution and also for our Bill of Rights with the very guarantees of religious freedom that forbid the sort of governmental activity which New York has attempted here. These men knew that the First Amendment, which tried to put an end to governmental control of religion and of prayer, was not written to destroy either. 

They knew, rather, that it was written to quiet well-justified fears which nearly all of them felt arising out of an awareness that governments of the past had shackled men's tongues to make them speak only the religious thoughts that government wanted them to speak and to pray only to the God that government wanted them to pray to. It is neither sacrilegious nor anti-religious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance. 

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, we don’t separate church and state because we’ve forgotten the role of faith in our creation; we separate them because we remember.

Goat Entrails

RELATED POST: A "Wall of Separation" - Introduction

RELATED POST: Everson v. Board of Education (1947)

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