Facts of the case
The New York State Board of Regents authorized a short, voluntary prayer for recitation at the start of each school day. A group of organizations joined forces in challenging the prayer, claiming that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The New York Court of Appeals rejected their arguments.
Does the reading of a nondenominational prayer at the start of the school day violate the "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment?
The state cannot hold prayers in public schools, even if participation is not required and the prayer is not tied to a particular religion.
In an opinion authored by Hugo L. Black, the Court held that respondent's decision to use its school system to facilitate recitation of the official prayer violated the Establishment Clause. Specifically, the policy breached the constitutional wall of separation between church and state. The Court ruled that the constitutional prohibition of laws establishing religion meant that government had no business drafting formal prayers for any segment of its population to repeat in a government-sponsored religious program. The Court held that respondent's provision of the contested daily prayer was inconsistent with the Establishment Clause.
Justice Douglas concurred in the judgment on the ground that the state's financing a religious exercise violated the First Amendment.
Justice Stewart dissented, arguing that no "official religion" was established by permitting those who want to say a prayer to say it.