In 1956, a 16 year old Pennsylvania high school student named Ellery Schempp finally had enough of his school’s practice—shared by schools in other states (see below)—of reading ten verses from the Bible each morning, followed by a mandatory recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Schempp, who became a physicist as well as a mountaineer (he was part of the first expedition to climb Nanga Parbat), knew that this enforced religious exercise violated the First Amendment, as it was slanted towards a particular religion: Christianity. Even though Schempp was nominally religious (well, a Unitarian Universalist, a hairsbreadth from atheism), he decided to act. He brought a Qur’an to class and refused to participate in the recitations. He was a brave young man.
Later Schempp, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, brought suit against the school district in a landmark case that wound up seven years later in the Supreme Court: Abington School District v. Schempp (1963). He and the ACLU won.
The BBC has just interviewed Schempp as part of a 15-minute Radio 4 documentary about the case that you can hear by clicking on the screenshot below. (The BBC program is available in the US and should be elsewhere). It was one of the first cases to challenge the pervasive religiosity of the 1950s in America. And the show is well worth hearing.
Here’s Wikpedia‘s summary of the court case:
Pennsylvania law, like that of four other states, included a statute compelling school districts to perform Bible readings in the mornings before class. Twenty-five states had laws allowing “optional” Bible reading, with the remainder having no laws supporting or rejecting Bible reading. In eleven of those states with laws supportive of Bible reading or state-sponsored prayer, the state courts had declared them unconstitutional.
The district court ruled in Schempp’s favor, and struck down the Pennsylvania statute. The school district appealed the ruling, and while that appeal was pending, the Pennsylvania legislature amended the statute to allow children to be excused from the exercises upon the written request of their parents. This change did not satisfy Schempp, however, and he continued his action against the school district, charging that the amendment of the law did not change its nature as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Because of the change in the law, the Supreme Court had responded to the school district’s appeal by vacating the first ruling and remanding the case to the district court. The district court again found for Schempp. The school district appealed to the Supreme Court again, and, on appeal, the case was consolidated with a similar Maryland case launched by Madalyn Murray.
The district court ruling in the second trial, in striking down the practices and the statute requiring them, made specific findings of fact that the children’s attendance at Abington Senior High School was compulsory and that the practice of reading 10 verses from the Bible was also compelled by law. It also found that:
“The reading of the verses, even without comment, possesses a devotional and religious character and constitutes in effect a religious observance. The devotional and religious nature of the morning exercises is made all the more apparent by the fact that the Bible reading is followed immediately by a recital in unison by the pupils of the Lord’s Prayer. The fact that some pupils, or theoretically all pupils, might be excused from attendance at the exercises does not mitigate the obligatory nature of the ceremony for … Section 1516 … unequivocally requires the exercises to be held every school day in every school in the Commonwealth. The exercises are held in the school buildings and perforce are conducted by and under the authority of the local school authorities and during school sessions. Since the statute requires the reading of the ‘Holy Bible,’ a Christian document, the practice … prefers the Christian religion. The record demonstrates that it was the intention of … the Commonwealth … to introduce a religious ceremony into the public schools of the Commonwealth. (201 F. Supp., at 819; quoted in 374 U.S. 203 (1963))”