Historical Background In 1951, the New York State Board of Education, also known as the New York State Board of Regents provided a twenty-two word prayer that would be spoken each morning in the schools. The prayer read as follows: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country. ” It was believed the prayer would be a way to promote character and citizenship among the students who attended the schools of New York. In New Hyde Park, the Union Free School District No. instructed the principal to have the prayer said aloud at the beginning of class in front of the teacher. However, the prayer was voluntary and students were permitted to stand or not stand, say the prayer or not say the prayer, stay in the classroom or leave the classroom. Ten of the student’s parents did not agree with the prayer and filed a suit in a New York state court seeking to ban the prayer informing the court the prayer was contradictory to their beliefs or religious practices. The State’s court heard the case and made a decision to uphold the use of prayer.
Legal Questions Identified by the Court It was being argued that the use of prayer in the school was a violation of the Establishment Clause found in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Parents of the students believed that the prayer was created by government officials to further expand religious beliefs. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The question that was before the Court was whether or not the New York Board of Regents violated the religious freedom of students by requiring time during the day for this particular prayer. Another question before the Court was by having an established prayer, was the prayer an established form of religion, or an established state church, by a public entity (government)? Majority Decision In a six to one decision, the Court found the prayer was unconstitutional.
Mr Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion. “We think that by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents' Prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York's program of daily classroom invocation of God's blessings as prescribed in the Regents' Prayer is a religious activity. ” Mr Justice Black also quoted James Madison, the author of the First Amendment.
Mr Justice William O. Douglas gave his opinion in a concurring opinion. Justice Douglas offers many of the same reasons Mr Justice Potter Stewart offers in his dissenting opinion on how the prayer is not unconstitutional. Mr Justice Douglas referred to a previous case heard decided by the Court, Everson v. Board of Education, 300 U. S. 1, 17, which allowed the use of taxpayer money to be used to pay for items of those students in parochial schools just as those students in public schools.
In this case, Mr Justice Rutledge stated in his opinion that it those in a dominant group will receive the greater benefit. Mr Justice Douglas believed the prayer at the New York schools goes away from tradition. Dissenting Opinion Mr Justice Potter Stewart, who cast the sole vote against the majority, offered his dissenting opinion. Justice Stewart stated he believed the Court had made the wrong decision by misapplying a “great constitutional principal”.
Justice Stewart was unable to determine how students saying a prayer at a school established an official religion and that the Court was not hearing arguments about an established state church, which is unconstitutional, but with students beginning their day with prayer. “Moreover, I think that the Court’s task, in this as in all areas of constitutional adjudication is not responsible aided by the uncritical invocation of metaphors like the “wall of separation,” a phrase nowhere to be found in the Constitution. Justice Stewart further explained the Supreme Court begins each day with an invocation asking for God’s protection. Furthermore, each President has requested the protection and help of God upon assuming office as Commander in Chief. In 1952, Justice Stewart explained how Congress produced legislation that called for the President to proclaim a National Day of Prayer. Justice Stewart also stated that in 1954, Congress added “one nation under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and in 1865 the phrase “IN GOD WE TRUST” has been on our currency.
Justice Stewart lastly stated he did not believe that any President or Congress had established an official state religion by their actions. Conservative or Liberal Decision Conservatives believe that the Constitution should be interpreted quite literally while liberals believe that the Constitution should be interpreted less literally and decisions should be made based on the “necessities of the time”. With the Court reversing and remanding the decision made by the New York state court, the Court took a liberal stance in their decision by making a law (a human law).
Furthermore, liberals have a strong value relating to toleration and diversity, also known as cultural diversity. The decision handed down by the Court, reveals that the Court did agree that while although prayer was predominate within the Court and congress; it is fundamentally wrong to subject someone to a voluntary prayer. Mr Justice Black states: “When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain. ”