Chamberlin Case Challenged 1950s School Prayer in Florida


The Chamberlin family

Freedom From Religion Foundation member Marjory Chamberlin and her son Richard recently dropped by the Foundation office in Madison, Wis., to introduce themselves, bearing 50-year-old news clippings.

Their family brought one of the earliest lawsuits against bible reading in public schools.

Marjory and her husband Harlow L. Chamberlin, a radio advertising salesman, had moved to Miami from Madison, Wis., in 1950. They had three children, Richard, Betty Ann and Sandra.

“Sandra’s first-grade teacher came to visit us,” recalled Marjory. “She wondered why Sandra didn’t like school.”

Marjory told Freethought Today: “Sandra didn’t like school because the teacher talked about devils and angels in class.”

The practices of bible reading and morning prayers were taking place in North Miami Elementary School, throughout Dade County and the entire state. Florida law required daily bible readings, followed by prayer. In the Chamberlins’ experience, those rituals were occasionally followed by religious commentary from teachers.

Harlow was active with the Florida American Civil Liberties Union and decided it was time to correct these First Amendment violations.

When the lawsuit was filed, he told the Miami Herald (Oct. 18, 1959):

“If we teach our children to believe what the arithmetic teacher says and what the history teacher says, but then tell them not to believe what a teacher says of a religious nature–you can see the conflict.

“It should not be necessary for our children to be taught beliefs in public school that we don’t hold. Our little Sandy was frightened and confused when the teacher started talking about angels and the devil.

“When parents and teachers contradict each other, a child tends to reject all authority.

“We can come to the point where various religious sects are slugging it out on school grounds to gain ascendancy for their beliefs.”

Because of the publicity surrounding the case, Harlow was fired from his job as a salesman at a Miami radio station.

Richard, the oldest child, was 14 when the lawsuit was filed. He remembers he “got harassed a lot, got hassled in school.”


Marjory Chamberlin and her son Richard
Photo by Dan Barker

Marjory still rolls her eyes over the crank calls.

“It was terrible at first. The crank calls were incessant, one after another. They were such mean calls.” Some of the callers insisted the Chamberlin children must be “monsters” if they were raised in a secular home. Marjory debunked that by showing a Miami Herald reporter a stack of report cards revealing their children’s high marks in citizenship.

Harlow described his family as “nontheistic humanists.”

When Harlow first took the family’s request to end bible reading and prayers to the school board, he told them:

“We believe the Christian God is an oversimplified, anthropomorphic symbol that satisfies the human yearning for an explanation of the unknown.

“We believe in freedom, humanity, justice, order and moderation.”

The lawsuit proceeded to a trial, which was described as “heated” by theHerald, before Circuit Court Judge J. Fritz Gordon. Gordon ruled that some of the school’s practices were illegal, but that bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer were not.

The Florida Supreme Court upheld Judge Gordon’s ruling on June 6, 1962.

After the Schempp decision in 1963, ruling that bible recitations and the Lord’s Prayer in public schools violated the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the Chamberlin case back to the Florida Supreme Court for reconsideration. That court upheld its previous ruling, insisting that the state statute requiring bible reading was based on “secular needs” for moral training.

The U.S. Supreme Court then reversed the lower court’s decision on June 1, 1964.

Florida’s law prohibiting bible reading in public schools was named after Harlow Chamberlin.

Harlow died at age 65 in September 1972. The Herald reported his death in a news story recapping the case.

He and Marjory, who was a music major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (graduating 1937), met when Harlow was giving tap dance lessons at Kehl School in Madison. Harlow had hired Marjory to play piano. She said it was “love at first sight.” Marjory moved back to Madison, Wis., four years ago.

Their daughter Betty became a ballerina dancing with the American Ballet Theater, Sandra is an artist and a mother, and Richard works for a local cab company. He has written a memoir, partly about the case, called “Hitchhiking from Vietnam,” due out next year.

Marjory proudly noted: “All our children are nonreligious.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation