Engel v. Vitale (1962)

Supreme Court Decision.

For decades, many public schools across the United States started the school day with a prayer since the days of one-room schools. In the 1950s, the state of New York tried to standardize prayer in its public schools by coming up with a common, non-denominational prayer meant to satisfy most all religions: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.” When challenged in court, the prayer and school-conducted routine didn’t pass the constitutional test. Below is a passage from the Supreme Court’s ruling. Read it closely and then answer the questions that follow.

The point for decision is whether the Government can constitutionally finance a religious exercise. Our system at the federal and state levels is presently honeycombed with such financing [with government-paid clergymen for the House and Senate, and a Supreme Court crier, all who offer prayers at the opening of each session]. Nevertheless, I think it is an unconstitutional undertaking whatever form it takes . . . for, in each of the instances given, the person praying is a public official on the public payroll, performing a religious exercise in a governmental institution . . . It is said that the element of coercion is inherent in the giving of this prayer . . . Few adults, let alone children, would leave our courtroom or the Senate or the House while those prayers are being given. Every such audience is in a sense a “captive” audience . . . A religion is not established in the usual sense merely by letting those who choose to do so say the prayer that the public school teacher leads. Yet once government finances a religious exercise, it inserts a divisive influence into our communities.” Majority Opinion by Mr. Justice Hugo Black

1. What religious positions/procedures in the federal government does Justice Black mention as perhaps also unconstitutional?

2. How does finance or public money play into his reasoning?

3. What amendment and specific clause is at issue here?