In applied to states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s

In Engel v. Vitale 370 U.S. 421 (1962), the United States Supreme Court considered a case involving a New York State statute requiring public schools to open the school day with a nondenominational prayer. Though different school districts chose different prayers, the one challenged in this case read: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country” (Engel v. Vitale, Oyez). Students were not coerced to participate and could opt-out; nonetheless, a group of concerned parents, led by Steven Engel, brought suit against the school board president William Vitale, contending that this statute violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which was applied to states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Lower courts had sided with the school district and upheld the state law on the grounds that participating in the prayer was voluntary (Darko 2017). In a 6-1 decision, Justice Hugo Black found New York’s law to “wholly inconsistent” with the Establishment Clause, as applied to states through the Due Process Clause (Engel v. Vitale, p 424).  In making this argument, Justice Black explores the early history of the American colonies and Republic, ultimately concluding that, “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” (Engel v. Vitale, p 429). Further, “Under The First Amendment’s prohibition against governmental establishment of religion, as reinforced by the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, government in this country, be it state or federal, is without power to prescribe by law any particular form of prayer which is to be used as an official prayer in carrying on any program of governmentally sponsored religious activity” (Engel v. Vitale, p 430). Justice Black and the rest of the Court majority extended previous court law that had banned prayer and other religious activities in public schools, and held that even nondenominational, noncompulsory prayer was against the Constitution. This represented an expansion of the definition of the Establishment Clause, indicating that even a non-specific establishment of religion violated it.  In practicality, this decision impacts administrators across the country. Engel v. Vitale requires schools and administrators at all levels to be aware of how their choice of group pronouncements may impact different groups of students, regardless of whether they are compulsory or not. It also significantly limits the ability of states or school systems to incorporate even hints of religious beliefs into its traditions or requirements. The Constitution does not require that individuals feel their rights are being violated for its strictures to apply—with Engel this means that schools must abide by the prohibition on official prayers whether or not there are parents like Steven Engel who feel uncomfortable with the practice. I can imagine a situation where an administrator would have a group of parents, perhaps even a strong majority of parents in some areas, asserting that not only do they want school prayer, but that their children’s free exercise rights are being violated without it. Engel v. Vitale does not allow for such an argument to win the day and requires school officials to abide by it regardless of what the parents of a particular district or school may desire. This can be tricky to navigate, particularly when murkier areas such as prayers by school football teams or by student groups are considered. I think administrators should ban all such practices without exception. Doing so would protect their schools from potentially damaging and expensive legal repercussions. 


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