The Surprising Admissions of Justice Douglas
in Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)

U.S. Supreme Court

ENGEL v. VITALE, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)

370 U.S. 421

No. 468.
Argued April 3, 1962.
Decided June 25, 1962.

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, concurring.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART, dissenting.

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER took no part in the decision of this case.

MR. JUSTICE WHITE took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, concurring.

[Footnote 1] "There are many `aids' to religion in this country at all levels of government. To mention but a few at the federal level, one might begin by observing that
  • the very First Congress which wrote the First Amendment provided for chaplains in both Houses and in the armed services.
  • There is compulsory chapel at the service academies, and
  • religious services are held in federal hospitals and prisons.
  • The President issues religious proclamations.
  • The Bible is used for the administration of oaths.
  • N. Y. A. and W. P. A. funds were available to parochial schools during the depression.
  • Veterans receiving money under the `G. I.' Bill of 1944 could attend denominational schools, to which payments were made directly by the government.
  • During World War II, federal money was contributed to denominational schools for the training of nurses.
  • The benefits of the National School Lunch Act are available to students in private as well as public schools.
  • The Hospital Survey and Construction Act of 1946 specifically made money available to non-public hospitals.
  • The slogan `In God We Trust' is used by the Treasury Department, and Congress recently added God to the pledge of allegiance.
  • There is Bible-reading in the schools of the District of Columbia, and
  • religious instruction is given in the District's National Training School for Boys.
  • Religious organizations are exempt from the federal income tax and are granted postal privileges.
  • Up to defined limits - 15 per cent of the adjusted gross income of individuals and 5 per cent of the net income of corporations - contributions to religious organizations are deductible for federal income tax purposes.
  • There are no limits to the deductibility of gifts and bequests to religious institutions made under the federal gift and estate tax laws.

This list of federal `aids' could easily be expanded, and of course there is a long list in each state." Fellman, The Limits of Freedom (1959), pp. 40-41.

It is customary in deciding a constitutional question to treat it in its narrowest form. Yet at times the setting of the question gives it a form and content which no abstract treatment could give. 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.1 Nevertheless, I think it is an unconstitutional undertaking whatever form it takes.

First, a word as to what this case does not involve. [370 U.S. 421, 438]

Plainly, our Bill of Rights would not permit a State or the Federal Government to adopt an official prayer and penalize anyone who would not utter it. This, however, is not that case, for there is no element of compulsion or coercion in New York's regulation requiring that public schools be opened each day with the following prayer:

The prayer is said upon the commencement of the school day, immediately following the pledge of allegiance to the flag. The prayer is said aloud in the presence of a teacher, who either leads the recitation or selects a student to do so. No student, however, is compelled to take part. The respondents have adopted a regulation which provides that "Neither teachers nor any school authority shall comment on participation or non-participation . . . nor suggest or request that any posture or language be used or dress be worn or be not used or not worn." Provision is also made for excusing children, upon written request of a parent or guardian, from the saying of the prayer or from the room in which the prayer is said. A letter implementing and explaining this regulation has been sent to each taxpayer and parent in the school district. As I read this regulation, a child is free to stand or not stand, to recite or not recite, without fear of reprisal or even comment by the teacher or any other school official.

[Footnote 2] West Point Cadets are required to attend chapel each Sunday. Reg., c. 21, 2101. The same requirement obtains at the Naval Academy (Reg., c. 9, 0901, (1) (a)), and at the Air Force Academy except First Classmen. Catalogue, 1962-1963, p. 110. And see Honeywell, [370 U.S. 421, 439] Chaplains of the United States Army (1958): Jorgensen, The Service of Chaplains to Army Air Units, 1917-1946, Vol. I (1961).

In short, the only one who need utter the prayer is the teacher; and no teacher is complaining of it. Students can stand mute or even leave the classroom, if they desire.2 [370 U.S. 421, 439]

McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, does not decide this case. It involved the use of public school facilities for religious education of students. Students either had to attend religious instruction or "go to some other place in the school building for pursuit of their secular studies. . . . Reports of their presence or absence were to be made to their secular teachers." Id., at 209. The influence of the teaching staff was therefore brought to bear on the student body, to support the instilling of religious principles. In the present case, school facilities are used to say the prayer and the teaching staff is employed to lead the pupils in it. There is, however, no effort at indoctrination and no attempt at exposition. Prayers of course may be so long and of such a character as to amount to an attempt at the religious instruction that was denied the public schools by the McCollum case. But New York's prayer is of a character that does not involve any element of proselytizing as in the McCollum case.

The question presented by this case is therefore an extremely narrow one. It is whether New York oversteps the bounds when it finances a religious exercise.

What New York does on the opening of its public schools is what we do when we open court. Our Crier has from the beginning announced the convening of the Court and then added "God save the United States and this Honorable Court." That utterance is a supplication, a prayer in which we, the judges, are free to join, but which we need not recite any more than the students need recite the New York prayer.

[Footnote 4] Rules of the Senate provide that each calendar day's session shall open with prayer. See Rule III, Senate Manual, S. Doc. No. 2, 87th Cong., 1st Sess. The same is true of the Rules of the House. See Rule VII, Rules of the House of Representatives, H. R. Doc. No. 459, 86th Cong., 2d Sess. The Chaplains of the Senate and of the House receive $8,810 annually. See 75 Stat. 320, 324.
[Footnote 5] It would, I assume, make no difference in the present case if a different prayer were said every day or if the ministers of the community rotated, each giving his own prayer. For some of the petitioners in the present case profess no religion.

The Pledge of Allegiance, like the prayer, recognizes the existence of a Supreme Being. Since 1954 it has contained the words "one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." 36 U.S.C. 172. The House Report recommending the addition of the words "under God" stated that those words in no way run contrary to the First Amendment but recognize "only the guidance of God in our national affairs." H. R. Rep. No. 1693, 83d Cong., 2d Sess., p. 3. And see S. Rep. No. 1287, 83d Cong., 2d Sess. Senator Ferguson, who sponsored the measure in the Senate, pointed out that the words "In God We Trust" are over the entrance to the Senate Chamber. 100 Cong. Rec. 6348. He added:

    "I have felt that the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag which stands for the United States of America should recognize the Creator who we really believe is in control of the destinies of this great Republic.

    "It is true that under the Constitution no power is lodged anywhere to establish a religion. This is not an attempt to establish a religion; it has nothing to do with anything of that kind. It relates to belief in God, in whom we sincerely repose our trust. We know that America cannot be defended by guns, planes, and ships alone. Appropriations and expenditures for defense will be of value only if the God under whom we live believes that we are in the right. We should at all times recognize God's province over the lives of our people and over this great Nation." Ibid. And see 100 Cong. Rec. 7757 et seq. for the debates in the House.

The Act of March 3, 1865, 13 Stat. 517, 518, authorized the phrase "In God We Trust" to be placed on coins. And see 17 Stat. 427. The first mandatory requirement for the use of that motto on coins [370 U.S. 421, 441] was made by the Act of May 18, 1908, 35 Stat. 164. See H. R. Rep. No. 1106, 60th Cong., 1st Sess.; 42 Cong. Rec. 3384 et seq. The use of the motto on all currency and coins was directed by the Act of July 11, 1955, 69 Stat. 290. See H. R. Rep. No. 662, 84th Cong., 1st Sess.; S. Rep. No. 637, 84th Cong., 1st Sess. Moreover, by the Joint Resolution of July 30, 1956, our national motto was declared to be "In God We Trust." 70 Stat. 732. In reporting the Joint Resolution, the Senate Judiciary Committee stated:

    "Further official recognition of this motto was given by the adoption of the Star-Spangled Banner as our national anthem. One stanza of our national anthem is as follows:

"`O, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov'd home and the war's desolation!
Blest with vict'ry and peace may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto - "In God is our trust."
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.'

    "In view of these words in our national anthem, it is clear that `In God we trust' has a strong claim as our national motto." S. Rep. No. 2703, 84th Cong., 2d Sess., p. 2.

What New York does on the opening of its public schools is what each House of Congress3 does at the opening [370 U.S. 421, 440] of each day's business.4 Reverend Frederick B. Harris is Chaplain of the Senate; Reverend Bernard Braskamp is Chaplain of the House. Guest chaplains of various denominations also officiate.5 [370 U.S. 421, 441]

In New York the teacher who leads in prayer is on the public payroll; and the time she takes seems minuscule as compared with the salaries appropriated by state legislatures and Congress for chaplains to conduct prayers in the legislative halls. Only a bare fraction of the teacher's time is given to reciting this short 22-word prayer, about the same amount of time that our Crier spends announcing the opening of our sessions and offering a prayer for this Court. Yet for me the principle is the same, no matter how briefly the prayer is said, 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.6 It is said that the [370 U.S. 421, 442] element of coercion is inherent in the giving of this prayer. If that is true here, it is also true of the prayer with which this Court is convened, and of those that open the Congress. 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.

At the same time I cannot say that to authorize this prayer is to establish a religion in the strictly historic meaning of those words.7 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.8 The New York Court said that the prayer given does not conform to all of the tenets of the Jewish, Unitarian, and Ethical Culture groups. One of the petitioners is an agnostic.

[Footnote 9] Religion was once deemed to be a function of the public school system. The Northwest Ordinance, which antedated the First Amendment, provided in Article III that "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

"We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313. Under our Bill of Rights free play is given for [370 U.S. 421, 443] making religion an active force in our lives.9 But "if a religious leaven is to be worked into the affairs of our people, it is to be done by individuals and groups, not by the Government." McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 563 (dissenting opinion). By reason of the First Amendment government is commanded "to have no interest in theology or ritual" (id., at 564), for on those matters "government must be neutral." Ibid. The First Amendment leaves the Government in a position not of hostility to religion but of neutrality. The philosophy is that the atheist or agnostic - the nonbeliever - is entitled to go his own way. The philosophy is that if government interferes in matters spiritual, it will be a divisive force. The First Amendment teaches that a government neutral in the field of religion better serves all religious interests.

My problem today would be uncomplicated but for Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 17, which allowed taxpayers' money to be used to pay "the bus fares of parochial school pupils as a part of a general program under which" the fares of pupils attending public and other schools were also paid. The Everson case seems in retrospect to be out of line with the First Amendment. Its result is appealing, as it allows aid to be given to needy children. Yet by the same token, public funds could be used to satisfy other needs of children in parochial schools - lunches, books, and tuition being obvious examples. Mr. Justice Rutledge stated in dissent what I think is durable First Amendment philosophy:

What New York does with this prayer is a break with that tradition. I therefore join the Court in reversing the judgment below.

[Footnote 3] The New York Legislature follows the same procedure. See, e. g., Vol. 1, N. Y. Assembly Jour., 184th Sess., 1961, p. 8: Vol. 1, N. Y. Senate Jour., 184th Sess., 1961, p. 5.

[Footnote 6] The fact that taxpayers do not have standing in the federal courts to raise the issue (Frothingham v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447) is of course no justification for drawing a line between what is done in New York on the one hand and on the other what we do and what Congress does in this matter of prayer.

[Footnote 7] The Court analogizes the present case to those involving the traditional Established Church. We once had an Established Church, the Anglican. All baptisms and marriages had to take place there. That church was supported by taxation. In these and other ways the Anglican Church was favored over the others. The First Amendment put an end to placing any one church in a preferred position. It ended support of any church or all churches by taxation. It went further and prevented secular sanction to any religious ceremony, dogma, or rite. Thus, it prevents civil penalties from being applied against recalcitrants or nonconformists.

[Footnote 8] Some communities have a Christmas tree purchased with the taxpayers' money. The tree is sometimes decorated with the words "Peace on earth, goodwill to men." At other times the authorities draw from a different version of the Bible which says "Peace on earth to men of goodwill." Christmas, I suppose, is still a religious celebration, not merely a day put on the calendar for the benefit of merchants.

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