Celebrate 50 years of freedom from religious ritual in public schools

eschemppMonday, 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.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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