National Edition

Supreme Court ruling 50 years ago set modern course for religion in public schools

Published: Friday, June 14 2013 4:45 p.m. MDT

Tim Morris teaches a Bible class to juniors and seniors at Woodland High School Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 in Cartersville, Ga. Georgia was the first state in the country to allow Bible classes in public schools, but the number of districts offering the classes have dwindled to just a handful as budgets remain tight.

David Goldman, AP

Ellery Schempp knew he could get into trouble.

The studious 16-year-old wanted to make a point that a Pennsylvania law mandating a morning religious devotional in his homeroom class violated his First Amendment right to religious freedom. So, on a chilly Monday morning in November 1956, as an Abington High School classmate began reading 10 verses from the King James Bible, Schempp quietly read a copy of the Quran he borrowed from a friend. But he didn't catch his teacher's attention until he remained seated while everyone else stood to recite the Lord's Prayer.

"I was a bit naïve," recalls the now-72-year-old retired physicist. "I thought it was so transparent that these Bible readings and prayers violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment that when we pointed this out, the grown-ups would set it right."

But instead of his teacher, principal and guidance counselor, who had Schempp sit outside the office during the morning ritual for the rest of the school year, the grown-ups who addressed the problem were nine U.S. Supreme Court justices who ruled on the matter 50 years ago on June 17.

Despite a popular perception that the 8-1 decision ripped religion out of public schools by banning the ceremonial reading of Bible verses, prominent First Amendment scholars and educators say Abington v. Schempp marked a rare consensus among conservative and liberal justices that actually provided a framework for allowing religion into the public school curriculum.

Schempp — the shorthand reference to the ruling — clarified that while government can't promote or denigrate religion, the subject of faith and its role in history, literature and the arts has educational value and can be taught in public schools.

"Schempp became the founding document for teaching about religion in school," said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the center's Religious Freedom Education Project. "It is a very powerful document … that we still use today in working out these issues."

Bible riots

Bible reading had stirred controversy in Pennsylvania and other states long before Ellery Schempp decided to take it on, turning his family's home in the community of Roslyn into a target of hate mail, vandalism and cat calls.

In 1844, more than 20 people died in nearby Philadelphia during the infamous Bible riots, sparked by a dispute over which Bible should be read in public schools: the Protestant King James version or the Douay-Rheims version accepted by the growing number of Irish Catholic immigrants.

Reading the Bible without commentary before the school day began was a compromise reached in the early evolution of public education between those who wanted to remove religion from the curriculum and those who didn't. Haynes said supporters wanted to simply read passages, without discussion, to send a message to an influx of immigrants about what it meant to be an American.

He said the public school was understood as a place where students were "Americanized," and many members of the majority mainline Protestant faiths believed the moral underpinnings of their country were found in scripture.

"It wasn’t so much that Protestants wanted their Bible read as it was that Americans believed public schools were the most Americanizing influence and would prevent all kinds of things that would happen" if the influx of Roman Catholics and other immigrants introduced differing viewpoints, he said.

The private Catholic school system was born out of this conflict. But as immigration continued to diversify the nation's religious landscape over the ensuing decades, the practice of Bible reading in schools continued to cause controversy and was either dropped by public school officials or banned by state courts that ruled in favor of minority communities that challenged the policies.

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