Engel v. Vitale
States frequently imposed religious prayers on students in public schools until the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale in 1961. The New York-based case drew interest from dozens of other states which urged the court to uphold the right of states to promulgate religion in the classroom.
Citing the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the Court struck down prayer in public schools as unconstitutional and set the bar for future decisions regarding any sort of moments of silence or other symbolically religious acts condoned by school officials.
Subsequent cases that leaned on the Engel decision included Abington v. Schempp, a 1963 case in which the father of public school students protested the requirement that his children take part in reading Bible passages each morning at the start of school, a common practice at the time. The Court went beyond the basic prohibition of schools favoring one religion over another to state that any “sanctioning” religious themes or practices in schools is unconstitutional.
Similarly, Wallace v. Jaffee was a 1985 Alabama case that abolished the practice of silent prayer in school due to the inclusion of the word “prayer.” Lee v. Weisman was filed over a 1989 high school graduation ceremony to which a rabbi had been invited for an invocation. In this case, because the school principal had provided a pamphlet on nonsectarian prayers the court believed him to be conducting or controlling prayer at a public school ceremony.
The Engel v. Vitale case was brought in a suburban New York town where the following brief nondenominational prayer was said in schools each morning:
"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen."
The plaintiff, a Jewish man with children in the school, was supported by a number of local religious organizations in his suit.