One of the most famous United States Supreme Court cases, Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) (sometimes known as the school prayer case) has a significant local connection. William J. Vitale, Jr. was the School Board President of the school district that was involved in the case. Mr. Vitale was a summer resident of Huletts Landing for many years.
The case is still considered one of the top Supreme Court cases of all time. In an effort to learn more the case, I asked Mr. Vitale’s daughter, Lora Vitale Johnson, a few questions to learn more about her memories of this famous case.
To begin, can you share a little bit about your father’s involvement in this famous case?
In the not too distant past, when I was a twelve year old student in a Long Island school district named Herricks, the New York State Board of Regents proposed a prayer to be said at the opening of school in the mornings (along with the Pledge of Allegiance). It was non-denominational, and there was no mandate to add it to the morning opening, but was left to each individual school district to decide whether to include it or not.
At the time, William J. Vitale, Jr. was president of the board of education in the Herricks public school district. He presented the Regent’s Prayer to the board for a vote, and the board voted in favor of the recitation of the prayer daily in the schools (the president abstained).
While the prayer was non-denominational, and no student was compelled to recite it, it did refer to “God”:
God, we acknowledge our dependence upon thee,
Our parents, our teachers and our country
Did he attend the Supreme Court oral arguments?
The mention of “God” did not align with the atheistic viewpoint, and so, as Mr. Engel held that viewpoint, he felt, and rightly so, that the use of this prayer in the public schools was a violation of the separation of church and state, which was not the popular viewpoint.
Separation of Church and State, a constitutional amendment, became an issue for the times, and though other cases came up throughout the country, Engel vs. Vitale was an early bell weather case and was, of course, of national importance.
One might assume that my father (Vitale) was being sued; this was not the case. Because he was president of the Board of Education at the time, his name actually represented the school board as a whole. He did not try the case, although he was an attorney. He did attend some of the Supreme Court hearings.
What was the fallout locally after the decision was rendered?
The case became so important nationally, that CBS News produced a nationally aired television program titled STORM OVER THE SUPREME COURT. My father was interviewed, along with the board’s lawyer, Bertram Daiker, and Mr. Engel. A number of supporters of the prayer, of differing Christian and Judaic* denominations were also featured.
Although my personal feelings on the prayer aligned with the Supreme Court (both then and now), I’d thought that it could have been replaced with a moment of silence, during which an individual could recite a prayer, mantra, or other form which would allow time to reflect daily on a personally spiritual concept or concepts aimed at providing a thought process which would provide each student with a strong moral foundation on which to base his or her daily and life decisions.
It is my belief that many today are led to overdevelop egocentrism, which might well turn out to be a negative influence.
*Wikipedia is in error; this was not a dispute between the Judaic and Christian members of the Herricks School District
Editor’s Notes: The case reached the Supreme Court in 1962 and in an opinion delivered by Justice Hugo Black, the Court ruled that government-written prayers were not to be recited in public schools and were a violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Establishment Clause of the first amendment.
“New Hyde Park” Memorial is a different school district in Queens. Herricks comprises a number of towns, including the Nassau County section of New Hyde Park, an area of Roslyn, Williston Park, and others. It is situated geographically between Garden City to the south, and Manhasset to the north.
Many thanks to Ms. Vitale Johnson for sharing her memories about this important part of American history.