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On March 17, 2019

Lesson Plan: Landmark Supreme Court Case: Engel v. Vitale (1962)

Engel & Abington: The SCOTUS and School Prayer

Christian Science Monitor correspondent Lee Lawrence discusses the facts surrounding the Supreme Court's Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp decisions.


Deliberations over the role of religion in public life are as old as the United States itself - and, of course, a significant part of the causation of there being a United States at all! In numerous cases, the Supreme Court has examined the question of if and how religion can be integrated into public schools and established parameters for that inclusion. One of those landmark decisions was the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale, involving a challenge to the daily formal recitation of the "Regents Prayer" by New York school children.


  • Opening Response/Discussion:

    In 1951, the New York State of Regents required that its school begin each day with classroom recitations of the following prayer: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

    The teacher-led prayer was recited alongside the Pledge of Allegiance and conducted with students' heads bowed and palms pressed together. Student participation was voluntary.

    In your view, does this set of circumstances constitute a law "respecting an establishment of religion," as prohibited by the First Amendment? Why or why not? What are a few arguments that might be made by someone taking the opposing position?

  • Fact-Finding:

    Watch the Engel and Abington: The SCOTUS and School Prayer video clip and respond to the below questions:

    • What were the facts of the Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp cases?
    • What did the Supreme Court decide in each case and why?
    • What does it mean for a prayer to be “state-sponsored?”
    • What kind of religious presence in schools did the Supreme Court find was permissible?
  • Fact-Finding:

    Watch the SCOTUS Rationale for its Engel and Abington Decisions video clip and respond to the below questions:

    • What was the rationale for the Supreme Court’s decisions in the Engel and Abington cases?
    • How did they respond to the argument that the decisions were establishing a “religion of secularism?”
    • How, according to Ms. Lawrence, do some historians argue that the Engel and Abington decisions were the result of a historical progression?
  • Fact-Finding:

    Watch the Aftermath of the Engel and Abington Decisions video clip and respond to the below questions:

    • What was the public reaction to the Engel and Abington decisions?
    • How did the election of President Kennedy impact public reaction?
    • How did schools respond to the decisions? What was the reaction to the schools' response?
  • Fact-Finding:

    Watch the SCOTUS Rationale for its Engel and Abington Decisions video clip and respond to the below questions:

    • What does Ms. Lawrence cite as the general outcome of Engel and Abington in terms of the presence of religious activities on school campuses?
    • What are some examples of religious activities that are permissibly included in public school life?
  • Fact-Finding:

    Watch the Two Kinds of Ways Religious Activities Can Take Place on Campuses video clip and respond to the below questions:

    • What, according to Ms. Lawrence, are the “two kinds of ways that religious activity can take place on campus?”
    • What is the Equal Access Act and how does it apply to schools’ ability to allow or disallow religious clubs?
    • How did the free speech idea of viewpoint neutrality pertain to the SCOTUS decision in the 2001 case of Good News Club v. Millford Central School referenced by Ms. Lawrence?
  • Fact-Finding:

    Watch the Organized Prayer in Public Schools video clip and respond to the below questions:

    • What is the differentiation offered by Ms. Lawrence between private prayer and organized prayer?
    • What is the distinction between student-organized prayer and state-organized prayer?
    • What types of student-led prayer presently have different regional rulings regarding permissibility?
  • Fact-Finding:

    Read and annotate the Engel v. Vitale case overview and opinion excerpts.

  • Evaluation:

    Revisit what you wrote in your opening response and rewrite it to incorporate facts and arguments presented in the video clips and case information.

    The Engel v. Vitale decision is now more than 50 years old. In your view, does it still make sense today? Why or why not?

  • Extension Activity Options

    • No Peace for the Peace Cross: Read the articles from Education Week and The Atlantic regarding the current SCOTUS case of American Humanist Association v. American Legion What parallels exist between this case and Engel v. Vitale? How do you predict the Supreme Court will rule and why? If you're correct, what implication if any will that ruling have on religion on public school campuses?
    • Everything Old is New Again: Find an article about a modern controversy involving student prayer in schools. Predict how that controversy will be resolved based on your above fact-finding.
    • #OMG: Imagine that social media had been available in New York in the early 60s. Compose a series of tweets and/or Snapchat stories and/or Instagram posts that you believe would have been posted in response to the Regents' Prayer recitation. Be sure to include hashtags!
    • Meaning in the Meme-Ing: Create two memes that convey the main ideas of Engel v. Vitale.
    • Celebrity Endorsement: Choose a famous person who, in your view, would be an active supporter of the Engel v. Vitale decision and a second celebrity whom you believe would disagree with it. Create pictures of each celebrity containing thought or speech bubbles that indicate and explain your rationale.
    • SCOTUS Comparison Question: Respond to this writing prompt, presented in the style of the SCOTUS Comparison Question component of the redesigned AP Government and Politics exam.

Additional Resources


  • 1st Amendment
  • Abington V. Schempp
  • Bill Of Rights
  • Civil Liberties
  • Constitution
  • Engel V. Vitale
  • Establishment Clause
  • Supreme Court
  • Viewpoint Neutrality


AP U.S. Government Key TermsCivil Rights & Civil LibertiesJudicial BranchSupreme Court CasesU.S. History


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