Obituary: Steven Engel, Plaintiff in Landmark School Prayer Case

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February 6, 2008 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union mourns the passing of Steven Engel, a Long Island parent who mounted a successful legal challenge against state-sponsored school prayer, enshrined in the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Engel v. Vitale.

Engel, a founding member of the statewide NYCLU and its Nassau Chapter, as well as an emeritus board member, died in January of heart failure. He was 85 years old.

“Mr. Engel and his fellow plaintiffs made a principled and courageous stand against state-sponsored religion in the public schools,” said Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU’s executive director. “They had the conviction to take their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, achieving a victory that helped preserve the religious freedom of all Americans. Their contribution must not be forgotten.”

Engel and eight other parents of students at Herricks High School in New Hyde Park sued the Commissioner of Education to contest the mandatory daily recitation of the Regents’ prayer in the school’s classrooms. The prayer, approved and recommended by the State Board of Regents in 1951, invoked God’s blessing on the students, their parents and teachers, and the country.

Represented by the NYCLU, the parents took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided Engel v. Vitale in 1962.

Writing for a 6-1 majority, Justice Hugo Black said daily recitation of the Regents’ prayer in public schools violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bars government-sponsored religious activity.

Black emphasized that the court’s ruling was not anti-religious but sought to protect individuals’ religious freedom from government intrusion.

“It is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance,” he wrote.

Bill Butler, at the time an NYCLU attorney, represented the parents throughout the case.

“It took tremendous courage, commitment and faith to shoulder this burden through the courts over nine years,” Butler said. “Steven did not give up despite consistent public criticism and defeat in the lower courts, and for that we are extremely grateful.”

The lawsuit prompted the creation of the Nassau Chapter of the NYCLU, which was formed from three local civil liberties clubs that had been active on the north shore, the south shore and mid-island. The other plaintiff parents were Daniel and Ruth Lichtenstein, Monroe and Julia Lerner, Lenore Lyons and Lawrence and Frances Roth, and Engel’s wife, Thelma.