Many traditions had developed within American culture that breached this wall of separation. For example, our coins have “In God We Trust” printed into them, The Pledge of Allegiance still contains the phrase “under God,” and many of our governmental ceremonies have prayer as their opening activity. For years, many public school districts mandated that the school day begin with some sort of prayer. The first case to come to the Supreme Court regarding school prayer was that of Engel v. Vitale in 1961. A group of ten parents sued the Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9 in Hyde Park, New York for having the following prayer said aloud in the presence of a teacher every day:
“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.”
The prayer was composed by the New York State Board of Regents, which is a state agency, and which had broad supervisory powers over the state’s public schools. The prayer was part of the Regents’ “Statement on Moral and Spiritual Training In The Schools.”
A class action was brought by a set of ten parents who felt the prayer was contrary to the religious practices of both the parents and the students, and they maintained that the state’s use of this prayer violated that part of the Federal Constitution that states “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” This clause was made applicable to state law by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
The lower courts that heard the case upheld the power of New York to allow the prayer to be said each day as long as no student was forced to participate or if the student was compelled to do so over the parents’ objection.