Ellery Schempp

On this date in 1940, Ellery Schempp was born in Philadelphia. Ellery began protesting morning devotions as a 16-year-old junior in Abington Senior High in Pennsylvania in 1956. Pennsylvania law then required ten verses of the bible to be read in every classroom at the beginning of each school day, followed by students standing to recite the "Lord's Prayer" and the flag salute. Twenty to 30 states had similar laws. "As a matter of religious conscience, I could no longer participate in these devotions," he said. He protested by bringing a copy of the Quran to school, to show that the bible was not unique, and read that silently instead of standing for the "Lord's Prayer." He ended up in the principal's office. Ellery then wrote a letter to the ACLU asking for their help. The ACLU agreed and filed a lawsuit. After he graduated from high school in 1958, he was no longer a plaintiff, but his family, including his father Ed Schempp, his mother Sydney, and younger siblings, carried on the celebrated case, which resulted in a landmark 8-1 decision in 1963 declaring devotional bible reading and prayer rituals in schools unconstitutional. "We received about 5,000 letters, roughly a third supporting us, a third opposing in reasonable terms, a third hateful and vituperative." The Schempp decision has stood as a bulwark against the coercive proselytization of small schoolchildren, and it has stood the test of time. The Schempp case was joined with Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s case out of Baltimore; the Schempp case came first legally, but Ellery has always been gracious in being sure both cases are credited.

Ellery, who had a distinguished career in science, attended Tufts, where he graduated cum laude in physics and geology. He earned a PhD at Brown in physics. He worked on fiber optics research, joined the staff of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1980, and worked on the development of MRI systems. Ellery Schempp is a member of the American Physical Society and has authored and coauthroed many articles in professional journals. He has traveled widely, including to Greenland, the Canadian Arctic, and in Antarctica, and has hiked and climbed in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Alps, the Himalayas, the Sierras and in New Zealand. Ellery, a Lifetime Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, was named a "Champion of the First Amendment" by the Foundation in 2007. Prof. Steven Solomon at New York University has documented the landmark case in the book, Ellery’s Protest, published by University of Michigan Press (2007). He is an accomplished speaker who often talks on college campuses to make sure students today know why it is so important to keep religion out of public schools and government programs.

“Public prayer is not intended to promote religious values, but to enhance the authority of some churches and some political views over others. Similarly with the posting of the Ten Commandments. It is about power, not about religion. Government by Christian or Islamic or any other faith has rarely been progressive.

And the Constitution clearly intends that there should be freedom from religion.”

—— Ellery Schempp, "A Champion of the First Amendment," in an acceptance speech to FFRF, Oct. 13, 2007

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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