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The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment

First Amendment

What was the prayer at issue in the Engel v. Vitale case?

In Engel v. Vitale (1962) the issue concerned a prayer that the Board of Regents of the State of New York “recommended” different school districts adopt as a nondenominational prayer. A school board in North Hempstead, New York, adopted a resolution that “the Regents prayer be said daily in our schools.” The prayer went as follows: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.” The Supreme Court, however, decided that even this generic prayer violates the First Amendment.

Justice Hugo Black (majority): “It is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America…. 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 religious must not be subjected to the pressures of government for change each time a new political administration is elected to office.”

Justice Potter Stewart (dissenting): “With all respect, I think the Court has misapplied a great constitutional principle. I cannot see how an “official religion” is established by letting those who want to say a prayer say it. On the contrary, I think that to deny the wish of these school children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our Nation.”



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