Associate Justice Hugo L. Black, the opinion writer for Engel v. Vitale (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004) Michael J. Klarman identifies Engel v. Vitale as an example of a Supreme Court decision that many Americans disagreed with, and one which proved that Americans do not necessarily use the views of the Supreme Court as the model for one’s moral conduct. “Engel v. Vitale has consistently been opposed by 60-70 percent of the American public…apparently, relatively few Americans take moral instruction on pressing policy questions from the justices.” (464)
Klarman’s chapter seven focuses on the Brown v. Board of Education case and its effects on desegregation from the 1950s through the Civil Rights Movement. Engel v. Vitale is mentioned briefly in the chapter, but the significance of the case cannot be diminished through Klarman’s omission from the majority of his book. The decision of Engel established precedents with the Establishment Clause (available on the Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute Website) in terms of religion that previous cases such as Doremus v. Board of Education could not. Klarman doesn’t develop any new understandings of the case, but includes it in a list of cases that took place after Brown that “Americans have felt free to disagree with the Supreme Court” on. (367)
Susan Dudley Gold’s Engel v. Vitale: Prayer in the Schools provides background information behind the case, the legal proceedings, and an analysis of the mix of religion and politics in the case. According to Gold, Engel v. Vitale stemmed out of a group of parent’s opposition to a government-written prayer. In 1958, the Hyde Park, New York school district required students to recite a short prayer that was created by the State Board of Regents, or the body that regulated New York Schools. The prayer was very short: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country, Amen,” but ultimately was brought to the Supreme Court in 1962. Steven Engel, one of the Hyde Park parents, sued William J. Vitale et. al, the representatives from the State Board of Regents, over the state sponsorship of prayers in schools. The Supreme Court ruled 6-1 in favor of Engel on June 25, 1962, citing “the state of New York’s adoption of a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment to the Constitution. (Swisher, 181)
Engel was preceded by Doremus v. Board of Education (1952), which covered the same issue of religion in schools but was delayed when the Court held that “a taxpayer had no standing to challenge Bible reading in public schools.” (Eastland, 125) In 1963, the Court ruled again in favor of separation of religion and education in Abington School District v. Schempp. The Court ruled against Doremus and in favor of Engel and Schempp, but the rulings had little effect on the public’s opinion of the Court. Despite these rulings and Brown v. Board of Education, Klarman notes that Supreme Court cases have had relatively little effect on both the public’s opinion and the public’s willingness to disagree with the Court.
Only seven Supreme Court justices presided over the Engel case: Chief Justice Earl Warren, and Associate Justices Hugo L. Black, William J. Brennan, Jr., Tom C. Clark, William O. Douglas, John Harlan II, and Potter Stewart (All biographies are available on the American National Biography Website). Terry Eastland’s Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court (available in the Dickinson Library) is an excellent source for background of Engel, the opinions, responses, and general knowledge of other cases involving religion and the State. Hugo L. Black delivered the opinion of the Court, William O. Douglas concurred with the opinion, and Potter Stewart dissented. In the opinion of the Court Justice Black recalled that many colonists left England for America in order to pursue religious freedom, and likened the New York Regent’s prayer to the oppression that America was supposed to lack. Justice Douglas concurred, stating “New York oversteps the bounds when it finances a religious exercise.” (Eastland, 132) In his dissent, Potter Stewart complained 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.” (Eastland, 135) Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court also includes primary source articles from The New York Times (June 27, 1962, “Prayer is Personal”), The Wall Street Journal (June 27, 1962, “In the Name of Freedom”), and The Christian Century (July 4, 1962, “Prayer Still Legal in Public Schools”). These responses to the Engel decision are mostly negative, which reflected public opinion towards the case then and still today for some.
The Dickinson College Library didn’t have any books specific to the case, but Eastland’s compilation and Carl Brent Swisher’s Historic Decisions of the Supreme Court are solid primary and secondary source compilations that are useful in researching Engel or any other Supreme Court case involving religion.