Ellery Schempp

On this date in 1940, Ellery Schempp was born in Philadelphia. He started protesting morning devotions as a 16-year-old junior in Abington Senior High in Pennsylvania in 1956. State law then required 10 bible verses to be read in every classroom at the beginning of each school day, followed by students standing to recite the Lord’s Prayer and flag salute. Twenty to 30 states had similar laws. 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.

Schempp then wrote a letter to the ACLU asking for help. The ACLU filed a lawsuit. After he graduated 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, Abington School District v. Schempp, 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,” Schempp said. The decision has stood as a bulwark against the coercive proselytization of  schoolchildren and has stood the test of time. Steven Solomon at New York University documented the landmark case in the book Ellery’s Protest, published by the University of Michigan Press (2007).

Schempp attended Tufts University, where he graduated cum laude in physics and geology. He earned a Ph.D. 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. A member of the American Physical Society, he has traveled widely, including to Greenland, the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, the Alps, the Himalayas, the Sierras and New Zealand.  A Lifetime Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, he was named a Champion of the First Amendment in 2007.

“The Supreme Court’s recent decisions are all about eclipsing the Etablishment Clause in favor of the Free Exercise Clause. I’ve gotten to the point where I say I don’t believe in freedom of religion anymore. It’s become so ridiculous. People today are saying, ‘I have a very sincere belief, I don’t believe in red lights, and where is my freedom?’ ” (Washington Post interview, June 23, 2023) Schempp added, “It’s getting worse because of Donald Trump and MAGA types, but it’s been brewing for a long time.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation