Ellery Schempp – “Champion of the First Amendment” Award

Ellery Schempp, an FFRF Lifetime Member and recipient of its Champion of the First Amendment award, is an accomplished Ph.D. physicist. He was a plaintiff in Abington School District v. Schempp, the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case in which mandatory bible readings in public school were declared unconstitutional. The case is chronicled in Stephen Solomon’s book Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer.

Ellery discussed the case in its 50th anniversary year at FFRF’s 36th annual convention Sept. 20, 2013, in Madison, Wis. His remarks were edited for print.

His introduction included a clip of him being interviewed by Eric Sevareid of CBS News in 1963.

By Ellery Schempp

ellery schempp by brent nicastroIt’s wonderful to be back in Madison with my FFRF friends. I’m a second generation supporter of FFRF as a Life Member. Annie Laurie and Dan Barker do so much good work; they leave me breathless.

So, let us pray. Isn’t it amazing how that phrase grasps us and makes us compliant? Something profound is supposed to follow to make us obedient or something, but where do we want to put our obedience, our loyalties and our commitments? 

I was born in Philadelphia in the Jewish Hospital. Mom resisted having me baptized. There was a lot of pressure from the Schempp side of the family. Grandmom was a devout Methodist and a fan of Billy Graham. Dad had slowly distanced himself from the bible and what he considered to be cruel and violent. But he did want to believe in some higher power, and only late in his life concluded that gods were man-made and religion is more a business than an uplifting force in society. He was disappointed in this conclusion, but he died in 2004 as a nonbeliever.

So here I am, unwashed and unbaptized. We attended pretty faithfully the Unitarian Church in Germantown. In addition to the usual bible stories and Sunday school, we learned about all the religions, and I quickly assimilated the idea that there was no single truth, and any claim that God spoke to some and not to others was ridiculous.

The church had an especially interesting pulpit, where we heard Rein-hold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and Norman Thomas, who spoke several times a year. I was greatly enamored with Thomas. When he spoke in a ringing voice about the great problems of our time, you wanted to rush to the barricades.

It soon became clear to me that there were many claims to religious truth, and they couldn’t all be right. The notion that there is only one true faith and that fits in all schools or in society is simply too absurd.

I started thinking about the Constitution and the bible way back in 1956. I was a 16-year-old junior at Abington Senior High School in a suburb of Philadelphia. Pennsylvania had a law that required 10 verses of the bible be read in every classroom at the start of each school day. Many schools included a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Twenty or 30 states had similar laws that had gone unchallenged for more than 60 years. It seemed to me that this was a violation of the First Amendment because it clearly established a Christian religious practice in the schools under the authority of the government.

The First Amendment is only 45 words long, so it’s not taxing even for teenagers. It’s interesting that this daily ceremony was known as morning devotions, so the religious nature was obvious. I did, in fact, bring a copy of the Quran to school because I wanted to show that the bible was not the only source of truth, not the only holy book. The Quran was merely by accident; I didn’t know a thing about Islam at the time, neither did anybody I knew, but one of my friend’s fathers had a copy of it in his library. [Ellery read the Quran while the teacher was reading bible verses to the class and refused to stand while a student recited the prayer.]

That got me sent to the principal, who lectured me on respect and school rules. I replied that I was concerned about respect for the Constitution and freedom of conscience. He sent me to the guidance counselor. Was I having problems at home? Did I have any difficulties with my father?

No, I said, I just disagreed about bible reading and prayer. So that evening, Nov. 26, 1956, I wrote a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, asking for help:


As a student in my junior year at Abington Senior High School, I would very greatly appreciate any information you might send regarding possible union action and/or aid in testing the constitutionality of Pennsylvania law, which arbitrarily and seemingly unrighteously and unconstitutionally compels the bible to be read in our public school system. I thank you for any help you might offer in freeing American youth in Pennsylvania from this gross violation of the religious rights as guaranteed in the First and foremost Amendment in our United States Constitution.

Well, speaking for American youth was indeed a bit pretentious. I also enclosed a $10 bill, which is worth $85.80 today. This got their attention. If a kid can save this sum from his allowance and cutting grass, he must be serious.

Not fit for kids

In 1956, 1960, even 1963 and later, the Secular Student Alliance didn’t exist. The Freedom From Religion Foundation did not exist. American Atheists did not exist. There was no Internet. And so it was really only the ACLU that could come by to be supportive.

I had several reasons for my protest. One was fairness. I thought the schools needed to be fair to everyone. The bible is not the holy book of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, so that is an unfairness. Nonbelievers going to school to learn history and math should not have the bible or prayer forced on them.

I got to thinking, and that’s always a bit dangerous. I knew that kids in Oregon and other states did not have bible reading. Could it be true that they were less moral than those of us in Abington? 

The bible is full of unimaginable cruelties to women, to children, full of violence, rapes and genocides. Maybe a million deaths have been recorded in the bible, championed as righteous and the will of God. It was obviously not a book fit for children and had passages directly contradicting science.

In the Abington decision, the court recognized that children are particularly vulnerable and deserve particular protection for their developing thoughts as to their freedoms of belief, without coercion from a majority or a dominant religious faith’s belief. Being excused from class was not an effective answer. Self-identifying as a dissenter or nonbeliever opens the door to discrimination and taunting.

As Dan mentioned, a similar case was brought by Madalyn Murray O’Hair in Maryland in the 1960s. Murray v. Curlett was consolidated with our case before the Supreme Court. The decision in our favor was 8-1 with Justice Potter Stewart dissenting. 

The decision made national news and caused outrage on a grand scale. I have a lot of cousins, and suddenly every one had an identity crisis. “Can we change our names?” they asked.  President Kennedy made a nice statement to calm the country: “I’m sure we can all pray a little more in our homes, our churches and our synagogues.”

We received about 5,000 letters, roughly one-third supporting us, one-third opposing in reasonable terms where people could differ, and one-third, of course, were hateful, vituperative and ugly. My parents answered every letter with a return address. This was in the days before Xerox machines and stamps cost 3½ cents. It still came to hundreds of dollars.

Atheists are the most hated and feared group in America. We were accused of being everything the writers hated, so we expected the letters that said, “What are you, commies? What are you, Nazis? What are you, Catholics? What are you, Jews?” We didn’t expect ones that said, “What are you, Presbyterians?” “In the name of Christ, go to hell” was a frequent theme.

Some were newspaper clippings smeared with excrement. One of the things we learned was that in the United States. it was considered bad not to be Christian. It was very bad to be a communist, of course, but it was really quite awful to be an atheist. When people called us “you communist atheist,” they had reached their ultimate in outrage.

Our family suffered relatively little, especially compared to the Murray family or the McCollum family 65 years ago. Dog feces were thrown on our steps, the kids in the school bus rolled down the windows and shouted, “Now passing the commie camp.”  My brother Roger was knocked around several times, which hurt. Some parents told their daughters not to play with my sister Donna.

The ACLU had a nice remembrance in June, and I met a man named Shannon Turk. His family had moved to Butler, Pa., from someplace in the West. He had never been part of morning devotions or reciting the Lord’s Prayer, so he was initially baffled and wouldn’t recite it. The teacher called him forward, forced him to bend over and paddled him.

Turk was a determined young man and refused, so for the next two years, every day, he was paddled in front of the class. When he told his story, he embraced me with tears in his eyes, because one day the paddling stopped. Countless people over the years have told me how unpleasant it was for them at morning devotions.

Bible’s no blueprint

I went to Tufts University in the fall of 1958. I didn’t know then that when I applied to Tufts and several other colleges, my principal at Abington Senior High School, Eugene Stull, had written a letter of “disrecommendation” to every college I had applied to.

I learned about this because when 1962-63 came about, CBS News called me up and asked if I would be willing to do an interview. I went to Charles Stearns, the dean of admissions, to ask if there was anything I should know. He told me that after my application was accepted, Stull called long distance (long distance was expensive and rare in 1958) to tell him to rescind my admission, that I was a rotten apple and would bring disrepute onto Tufts.

Stearns told me that Stull’s call was the most amazing he’s ever received as dean, but he was very kind to say that Tufts did not regret their decision.

There’s nothing in the Constitution about the bible, and there’s nothing in the bible about democracy or the Constitution. Religious people assume that there is some connection. The Constitution is a purely humanistic document and mentions religion just twice. Both times, the word “no” is attached [in Article VI and the First Amendment].

The Constitution’s oath for taking office does not contain the phrase “so help me God.” That has been appended by various oath takers, probably for political spin. The writers of the Constitution were also very careful in distinguishing between an oath and an affirmation. We have the phrase “I do swear or affirm” because swearing an oath had religious connotations, and the founders were keen to put in the word “affirm” to assure freedom from religion.

The bible never mentions democracy or freedom of speech or freedom from religion. It does not mention checks and balances or limitations on the power of the executive. It does not even mention tolerance for other believers. So it’s no model for good government. I think it’s purely a religious or theological document for some believers.

You know the commandments — the 10, actually. If you type into Google “613 commandments,” you’ll find that there are 613 [mitzvahs in the Jewish tradition]. We’re not a Christian nation or a Judeo-Christian nation. We are a constitutional nation.

I’ll end by mentioning just one thing about the Declaration of Independence, which the right wing is so fond of quoting. It is a poetic document, intended to stir emotions and to override the prevalent notion of the divine right of kings. This is a topic in itself, but the Declaration is equally for religious independence as for political independence.

An important point to note is that the Declaration is not any part of the Constitution. And it is no part of the law of the United States. Not a single legal decision binds the Supreme Court or any other court based on the Declaration of Independence.

[The Declaration’s] rights “endowed by a creator” is humanistic in its intent. Even if religious, it is deistic. It emphasized the rights of the common man, the common woman, over the kingship class.

Working together

Finally, I want to say that I think it’s so important to have the Secular Coalition for America, which represents about 100 endorsing organizations at this point. The coalition has a full-time lobbyist. It’s the first time in our history that we’ve had somebody who is able to go and talk to Congress about the issues important to humanists and atheists.

I also want to say to my atheist friends, I know it’s very important to have a world outlook that rejects divine intervention and provides us a way of looking at the world around us and getting satisfaction and seeing the beauty in it. It is not enough to have a personal belief; it is important to support separation of church and state because that is social and political and extends well beyond us.

So I urge you to continue support for organizations like FFRF, Secular Student Alliance, American Humanists, the Secular Coalition, because these organizations amplify our views. When Zack Kopplin mentioned this morning that he wants to start a new organization, I worry a little bit. We don’t need a proliferation of new ones; we need to support the organizations that are doing so well now.

I thank you very much. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation