Engel v. Vitale



Is teacher-led prayer allowed in public school classrooms?

The Big Question

Should teacher-led prayer be allowed in public school classrooms?

The Big Survey

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Read a little background on the case. And watch this fantabulous video about Freedom of Religion.

Check out the facts of the case.

Facts of the case

The Board of Regents for the State of New York authorized a short, voluntary prayer for recitation at the start of each school day. This was an attempt to defuse the politically potent issue by taking it out of the hands of local communities. The blandest of invocations read as follows: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country."

And think about how you would answer the question before the court.


Does the reading of a nondenominational prayer at the start of the school day violate the "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment?

Listen to audio recordings of oral arguments from Engel v. Vitale.

Read the court ruling from Engel v. Vitale


6–1 decision for Engel

Yes. Neither the prayer's nondenominational character nor its voluntary character saves it from unconstitutionality. By providing the prayer, New York officially approved religion. This was the first in a series of cases in which the Court used the establishment clause to eliminate religious activities of all sorts, which had traditionally been a part of public ceremonies. Despite the passage of time, the decision is still unpopular with a majority of Americans.

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Complete our class starter on Freedom of/from Religion in American schools, and be prepared to share your answers in class.


Think about how the Engel v. Vitale ruling impacted American schools and participate in our freedom of/from religion cases scavenger hunt!


Here are some important Supreme Court cases related to Engel v. Vitale and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947)
Providing bus rides to parochial school students is constitutional.
The School Board of Iwing Township allowed its buses to transport children to a Catholic school. The Supreme Court rejected an Establishment Clause challenge to this practice, and held that the School Board was merely providing a financial benefit to the children and their parents, and was in no way promoting religious beliefs that are associated with the parochial school.

Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963) 
School-sponsored Bible reading before class is unconstitutional. 
A Pennsylvania law required that each school day open with the Pledge of Allegiance and a reading from the Bible. The law permitted students to absent themselves from this activity if they found it objectionable. Citing Engel, the Court held that school-sponsored Bible reading constituted government endorsement of a particular religion, and thus violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Westside Community Schools v. Mergers, 496 U.S. 226 (1990)
Public schools may not prohibit student religious groups from meeting on school grounds after hours.
Westside School District prevented a student religious club from meeting on its property after hours, citing First Amendment concerns. The club argued that the school's action violated their Free Exercise rights and the federal Equal Access Act. The Equal Access Act was passed by Congress to ensure that any school receiving federal funds could not prevent religious and other groups from using school property after hours. The Supreme Court upheld the Equal Access Act against an Establishment Clause challenge, saying that "neutrality" and no "hostility" to religion is all that is required by the First Amendment.

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000)
Students may not use a school's loudspeaker system to offer student-led, student-initiated prayer.
Before football games, members of the student body of a Texas high school elected one of their classmates to address the players and spectators. These addresses were conducted over the school's loudspeakers and usually involved a prayer. Attendance at these events was voluntary. Three students sued the school arguing that the prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. A majority of the Court rejected the school's argument that since the prayer was student initiated and student led, as opposed to officially sponsored by the school, it did not violate the First Amendment. The Court held that this action was school-sponsored prayer because the loudspeakers that the students used for their invocations were owned by the school.

Zelma v. Simmons Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002)
Certain school voucher programs are constitutional.
The Ohio Pilot Scholarship Program allowed certain Ohio families to receive tuition aid from the state. This would help offset the cost of tuition at private, including parochial (religiously affiliated) schools. The Supreme Court rejected First Amendment challenges to the program and stated that such aid does not violate the Establishment Clause.

Pro and Consider

Here are some arguments and counterarguments for school prayer.

Here is an extensive list of pros and cons of prayer in school.

Expert Opinions

Here are some expert opinions on prayer in school.


7 Reasons We Need Prayer Back in Schools by Genice Phillips on Beliefnet.


The truth about school prayer by Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum.

Public Opinion

Here's what Americans think about all this.

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Complete this Prayer in School Team Questionnaire and Discussion.


Hey, teacher - this would be a great time to have a freedom of/from religion fishbowl!!!


Write an argumentative essay about freedom of religion/freedom from religion.


Make something creative out of the case of Engel v. Vitale. Here are your instructions.


Rewrite the First Amendment (above) as you would like to see it in 2017 America. Edit the First Amendment by cutting, pasting, adding, subtracting, or completely rewriting it. Post your final revision on a poster or paper that you post in a public place or online. Share your post and its responses in class or online.


Your opinion again. Now that you've learned about and acted on this issue, share your opinion. Retake our School Prayer Survey!

Exit Interview

  1. How did your opinion change?

  2. In what way did your opinion not change?

  3. What do you know now that you didn't know before?

  4. In the Comment section below, share your final opinion on School Prayer.