Engel et al. v. Vitale et al.
Decided on June 25, 1962; 370 US 421

The requirement by the state that a non-denominational prayer be recited in public schools at the beginning of each school day, is unconstitutional government sponsorship of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.



A. Issues Discussed: School prayer

B. Legal Question Presented:

Is the recommendation by a state Board of Education that a non-mandatory and non-denominational prayer be said every day prior to the beginning of each school day in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment?


A. Background:

"The respondent Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9, New Hyde Park, New York, acting in its official capacity under state law, directed the School District's principal to cause [a] prayer to be said aloud by each class in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of each school day.

Shortly after the practice of reciting the Regents' prayer was adopted by the School District, the parents of ten pupils brought this action in a New York State Court insisting that use of this official prayer in the public schools was contrary to the beliefs, religions, or religious practices of both themselves and their children. Among other things, these parents challenged the constitutionality of both the state law authorizing the School District to direct the use of prayer in public schools and the School District's regulation ordering the recitation 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 of the said Constitution.'" 

The New York Court of Appeals, over the dissents... sustained an order of the lower state courts which had upheld the power of New York to use the Regents' prayer as a part of the daily procedures of its public schools so long as the schools did not compel any pupil to join in the prayer over his or his parents' objection. 

On certiorari the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal, were filed by Herbert A. Wolff, Leo Rosen and Nancy Wechsler for the American Ethical Union; Louis Caplan, Edwin J. Lukas, Paul Hartman, Theodore Leskes and Sol Rabkin for the American Jewish Committee et al.; and Leo Pfeffer, Lewis H. Weinstein, Albert Wald, Shad Polier and Samuel Lawrence Brennglass for the Synagogue Council of America et al.

William J. Butler argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was Stanley Geller.

A brief of amici curiae, urging affirmance, was filed by Roger D. Foley, Attorney General of Nevada, Robert Pickrell, Attorney General of Arizona, Frank Holt, Attorney General of Arkansas, Albert L. Coles, Attorney General of Connecticut, Richard W. Ervin, Attorney General of Florida, Eugene Cook, Attorney General of Georgia, Frank Benson, Attorney General of Idaho, Edwin K. Steers, Attorney General of Indiana, William M. Ferguson, Attorney General of Kansas, Jack P. F. Gremillion, Attorney General of Louisiana, Thomas B. Finan, Attorney General of Maryland, Joe T. Patterson, Attorney General of Mississippi, William Maynard, Attorney General of New Hampshire, Arthur J. Sills, Attorney General of New Jersey, Earl E. Hartley, Attorney General of New Mexico, Leslie R. Burgum, Attorney General of North Dakota, David Stahl, Attorney General of Pennsylvania, J. Joseph Nugent, Attorney General of Rhode Island, Daniel R. McLeod, Attorney General of South Carolina, A. C. Miller, Attorney General of South Dakota, Will Wilson, Attorney General of Texas, and C. Donald Robertson, Attorney General of West Virginia.

Charles A. Brind filed a brief for the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, as amicus curiae, in opposition to the petition for certiorari.

Bertram B. Daiker argued the cause for respondents. With him on the briefs was Wilford E. Neier. Porter R. Chandler argued the cause for intervenors-respondents. With him on the briefs were Thomas J. Ford and Richard E. Nolan.


"Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment of any law 'respecting an establishment of religion,' which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, state officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public schools of the State at the beginning of each school day - even if the prayer is denominationally neutral and pupils who wish to do so may remain silent or be excused from the room while the prayer is being recited."

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Vote: 6 Pro v. 1 Con
  • Black, H. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Warren, E.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Harlan, J.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Clark, T.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Con (wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Frankfurter, F. Took no part in the decision making process of the case
  • White, B. Took no part in the decision making process of the case

The ACLU, as attorney of record, urged reversal of the Court of Appeals' Judgment; the US Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision in a 6-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.