Monday, June 17, marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Abington v. Schempp.
Ellery Schempp began protesting morning devotions as a 16-year-old junior in Abington Senior High in Pennsylvania in 1956. Pennsylvania law then required 10 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 it 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," he said. The Schempp decision has stood as a bulwark against the coercive proselytization of small schoolchildren, and it has stood the test of time.
The case was joined with Madalyn Murray O'Hair's case out of Baltimore. The Schempps' case came first legally, but Ellery has always been gracious in being sure both cases are credited.
Ellery, a Lifetime Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, was named a "Champion of the First Amendment" by FFRF in 2007. Professor Steven Solomon at New York University has documented the landmark case in the book "Ellery's Protest (University of Michigan Press, 2007).
Ellery, a passionate lecturer 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, has also joined the lineup at FFRF's 36th annual national convention in Madison, Wis., the weekend of Sept. 27-29.
FFRF produced a film, "Champions of the First Amendment," about several Establishment Clause victors before the Supreme Court. Although Ellery was out of the country, his father is featured talking about the case and his son's protest. Go to FFRF's YouTube channel to view the half-hour film.
Justice Tom Clark wrote for the majority:
The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality. Though the application of that rule requires interpretation of a delicate sort, the rule itself is clearly and concisely stated in the words of the First Amendment.
The Schempp ruling sent a resounding message that schools are here to educate, not to indoctrinate. This strong victory and precedent invoked daily here at the Freedom From Religion Foundation came on the heels of the Supreme Court's first decision on school prayer, Engel v. Vitale, the year before, barring state-written and enforced daily prayer to open public school days.
The tandem decisions were met with hysterical outcries and relentless attempts by religious zealots to use the machinery of our state schools to proselytize a captive audience. It would take even more brave plaintiffs protesting, even more firm Supreme Court decisions to keep prayer and ritual out of school events and graduations. (See the listing below of significant Supreme Court or related decisions against religion in our schools.)
As Clark noted, freedom of religion "has never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the state to practice its beliefs."
Catch Ellery Schempp's interview on Freethought Radio tomorrow (streams live). The podcast will go up Monday on the decision's anniversary.
Supreme Court cases opposing religious worship in schools
- McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 212 (1948).
Struck down religious instruction in public schools. The case involved school-sponsored religious instruction in which the sole nonreligious student, Jim McCollum, was placed in detention and persecuted by schoolmates in Champaign, Illinois.
- Tudor v. Board of Education of Rutherford, 14 J.N. 31 (1953), cert. denied 348 U.S. 816 (1954).
Let stand a lower court ruling that the practice of allowing volunteers to distribute Gideon Bibles at public school was unconstitutional.
- Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962).
Declared prayers in public school unconstitutional.
- Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374. U.S. 203 (1963).
Declared unconstitutional devotional Bible reading and recitation of the Lord's Prayer in public schools.
- Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S., 97, 104 (1968).
Struck down state law forbidding schools to teach the science of evolution.
- Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980).
Declared unconstitutional the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms.
- Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 72 (1985).
Overturned law requiring daily "period of silence not to exceed one minute... for meditation or daily prayer."
- Jager v. Douglas County School District, 862 F.2d 824 (11th Cir.), Cert. den. 490 U.S. 1090 (1989).
Let stand a lower court ruling in Georgia that pre-game invocations at high school football games are unconstitutional.
- Lee v. Weisman, 120 L.E. 2d 467/ 112 S.C.T. 2649 (1992).
Ruled prayers at public school graduations an impermissible establishment of religion.
- Berger v. Rensselaer, 982 F.2d, 1160 (7th Cir.) Cert. denied. 124 L.E. 2d 254 (1993).
Let stand ruling barring access to Gideons to pass out bibles in Indiana schools.
- Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000).
Barred student-led prayers at public school functions.
Read the letter of complaint to the Houston USCIS
"Forward" may be the official motto of Wisconsin, but Wisconsin's governor has made an alarming deal with legislative leadership that will take our state educational system backward. Wisconsin's constitutionally created secular common school system is under ruthless attack.
The budget approved by the Joint Finance Committee this week would expand Wisconsin's voucher program from two cities now to statewide. It would be the most sweeping attack on public schools in the nation.
"Taxpayer money should not be going to unaccountable private and religiously segregated schools," said Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
The scheme would increase voucher payments by nearly 12% for K-8 enrollees and 22% for high school enrollees, as well as creating hefty tax deductions for private (that's mostly parochial) school parents.
Republican voucher backers say they want "a voucher in every backpack." Education experts across the state have opposed creating what amounts to a second publicly funded education system. In the first and second year of the new scheme, vouchers would be limited to low-income families and to 500 students and 1,000 students respectively. After that, the caps are sure to be expanded or removed. Milwaukee's voucher program started with 341 students in 1990 and now has nearly 25,000 students, with over 21,000 of them attending religious schools.
Of the current 112 voucher schools in Milwaukee, only 16 are not affiliated with a religious denomination.
State Education Superintendent Tony Evers strongly opposes voucher expansion and warns: "Let's be clear, no cap on voucher enrollment or income limits has ever stayed in place over the past 20 years. History shows, and I predict, these caps are temporary. And, the result will be more and more funding pulled out of public school classrooms and put into private and religious schools."
Publicly funded voucher schools lack accountability measures. Voucher schools do not have to have licensed teachers, empirically based curriculum, maintain their accreditation status, or abide by public meeting and open records laws. While public schools are governed by locally elected school boards, taxpayers have no say in how voucher schools are run. Voucher schools don't have to comply with the same disability education plans that public schools must.
"Vouchers in Wisconsin should be ended, not expanded. This failed experiment threatens to destroy our secular public school system and must go no further," added Gaylor. "This is a raid on the taxpayers by religiously exclusionary parochial schools and their backers."
In Milwaukee and Racine, the only cities currently required to fund vouchers, voucher students average lower scores on state exams than their public school counterparts. Some of the lowest math and reading test scores in the state have come from Milwaukee voucher schools, with a number of schools having not a single student test proficient.
Some of these schools, like Carter's Christian Academy, teach a fundamentalist Christian curriculum. Ninety-five percent of students receive publicly funded vouchers in more than half of Milwaukee's voucher schools, and a fifth of them contain 100% voucher student enrollment.
Legislators bent on funding religion have added significant tax deductions for parents of private school students, which would include wealthy Wisconsin families. Parents of private school students could deduct up to $10,000 on state income taxes for high school tuition payments and up to $4,000 for K-8 students. This would decrease state revenue by an estimated $30 million annually.
Sen. Dale Shultz, R-Richland Center, has said the voucher expansion puts the state on a "dangerous path" toward creating a parallel school system that will take money away from public schools. "We are only one budget away from opening the floodgates,” Schultz said, referring to the likelihood that enrollment caps would be loosened. “It’s grown every single budget. By going statewide you sort of legitimize the concept.”
Let's move Wisconsin forward by stopping vouchers and by supporting public education.
Both the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate must still approve the scheme.
There are plenty of foxhole atheists, but religionists on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee made sure this week that none will be allowed to serve as secular representatives in the chaplain corps.
A stream of invective against atheists followed the introduction of an amendment by U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act at the committee meeting June 5. It would have permitted persons certified by nontheist groups to join the chaplain corps to provide guidance to "members of the armed forces who are atheist, agnostic, or belong to no organized faith group."
The amendment, which was killed, brought a flood of abuse of the nonreligious:
- "They don't believe anything. I can't imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family's home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, 'You know, that's it — your son's just worms, I mean, worm food.'" — Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas
- "This I think would make a mockery of the chaplaincy. The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they're at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, 'If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.' " — Rep. John Fleming, R-La.
Kudos to Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who defended atheists and humanists and referenced atheist in a foxhole Pat Tillman, the NFL star killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.
"To say that an atheist or a humanist doesn't believe anything is just ignorant. They have very, very developed beliefs and value systems, and there are many, many of them serving in the military, including Pat Tillman. The response to the gentleman's amendment makes me feel all the more the necessity of it. Basically, if you are an atheist or agnostic in the military, the military's response is, 'We've got nothing for you.. There's no hope for you.' They believe in a system of values, and that system of values is worth as much to them as Christianity is to us."
Almost a quarter of military personnel identify as atheist, agnostic or having no religious preference (2010 MAFF study based on Department of Defense data). As a captive audience, many are increasingly subjected to proselytizing not only by Christian chaplains with a sense of entitlement, but by superiors who confuse patriotism with piety and abuse rank to promote religion.
Oh no! "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" is back! The Orwellian-named "Alliance Defending Freedom" typically hosts the annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday in the fall, encouraging pastors around the country to openly violate IRS law by endorsing political candidates from the pulpit. This annual event, in which droves of pastors last fall participated, was one of the reasons the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit against the IRS for non-enforcement of its anti-electioneering policy by churches violating the law. Now as the nation awaits a decision on marriage equality by the Supreme Court, the ADF is calling for churches to devote their devotionals this Sunday, June 9, to gay bashing from the pulpit.
According to a post on the speakupmovement.org blog, a wing of the well-endowed, mischief-making ADF, the religious right group is asking pastors to preach about the biblical (read: bigoted) definition of marriage. The ADF wants pastors to "Make sure your congregation knows where the Church stands on marriage," i.e., "one man, one woman."
Perhaps these pastors will be reading from the fetching book of Leviticus, which calls homosexuality "an abomination" and demands their execution, "their blood shall be upon them" (Leviticus 20:13).
There's no reason to keep hating, as FFRF is saying in an ad appearing in Scientific American this month. We're debuting a new series of monthly ads, "Theocracy Alert." The timely topic for the debut ad is the religious war against marriage equality, in which we point out, "Polls show more Americans support than oppose same-sex marriage. Yet many religious groups would impose their dogmas on the rest of us."
Wouldn't it be nice if our nation could have a Sunday free from pulpits intruding into civil liberties?
The Colorado Supreme Court announced earlier this month that it will hear an appeal by Gov. John Hickenlooper of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's victory in the appeals court declaring unconstitutional the governor's "Colorado Day of Prayer" proclamations.
Hickenlooper and his predecessors, including Gov. Bill Ritter, annually issue proclamations encouraging Coloradans to pray on the first Thursday in May, in conjunction with the "National Day of Prayer." A unanimous three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled last year that FFRF and four of its Colorado members have standing to sue over the proclamations and that they violate the Colorado Constitution. Read the Supreme Court Order.
On May 10, 2012, Colorado Appellate Judge Steve Bernard, with Judges Alan Loeb and Nancy Lichtenstein concurring, ruled in favor of FFRF, overturning a lower court decision. Judge Bernard wrote, "A reasonable observer would conclude that these proclamations send the message that those who pray are favored members of Colorado's political community, and that those who do not pray do not enjoy that favored status." The 74-page decision examined proclamations from 2004 to 2009, finding that they showed religious preference and endorsed religion. The decision noted that the proclamations convey a religious message, included "biblical verses and religious themes," referenced uniting in prayer, and have the Governor's imprimatur through use of his signature and seal.
Gubernatorial proclamations of a "Colorado Day of Prayer" have often embraced the biblical themes of the Colorado Springs-based National Day of Prayer Taskforce, including this year's proclamation which said in part, "the 2013 National Day of Prayer theme is 'pray for America' supported by Matthew 12:21 which reminds us that "in His name nations will put their hope."
FFRF, a state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of more than 19,000 freethinkers (atheists and agnostics), including nearly 600 members in Colorado. It won a significant federal court victory in 2010 declaring the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional, which was overturned on other grounds. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb had ruled, "The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy." FFRF is also pursuing a challenge of the Arizona Day of Prayer in state court.
FFRF thanks its Colorado plaintiffs: Mike Smith, Timothy G. Bailey, Jeff Baysinger—a Lifetime Member, and David Habecker. The case is brought on behalf of FFRF by Dan Boniface, local counsel, and attorney Richard L. Bolton, Boardman Law Firm, Madison, Wis.
The government's brief is due July 1, but an extension may be granted. Briefs from the case are available.