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

"If people want to know when religion left the public schools, it wasn’t through these (post-World War II Supreme Court) decisions. It was a long time ago when people couldn’t agree on sectarian teaching," Haynes said.

Still, a few states like Pennsylvania preserved the symbolic practice of Bible reading and prayer by making it the law.

The protest

In the 1950s, during the era of McCarthyism and the Cold War, religion became for many a defining characteristic of what it meant to be American. "One nation under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, "In God We Trust" was adopted as the nation's motto and a National Day of Prayer was enacted.

In this climate, Schempp and a few of his classmates met weekly at each other's homes to discuss things that were important to them, from dating to social issues. The gatherings were initiated by an English teacher, whom Schempp credits with getting him to think critically about conscience and ethics.

At one of the sessions, Schempp sparked a lively discussion when he brought up how the mandatory daily Bible reading and prayer bothered him and appeared a clear violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits government endorsement of a religion.

"Some defended it on the basis of tradition and that society evolved from Christianity. A lot of Jewish kids were uncomfortable reading the parts about Christmas and Easter," he recalled, also noting that the Catholic students complained they were taught a different version of the prayer than what they were forced to recite at Abington High.

For Schempp, the reading he had participated in for more than 10 years had become meaningless, with classmates taking their turns stumbling through passages they randomly picked from a book they seldom read. He recalled a time when students found it funny to rattle off 10 verses of biblical genealogy describing who begat whom. Shempp took his turn at humoring the class by once reading a suggestive section of the Song of Solomon.

"What started to bother me is it took on a kind of silliness," he said.

After he learned his friends were also troubled by the practice, Schempp and about four of his classmates decided they would protest by not standing up for the Lord's Prayer during the morning ritual. It was Schemmp's idea to bring the Quran, which belonged to the father of one of the boys, to make a point that he believed the Bible was not the only source of religious inspiration. "I knew absolutely nothing about Islam … I had never met a Muslim. So, it was purely by accident," he said of picking Islam's holy book.

Raised a Unitarian, Schempp was taught to embrace a diversity of religious thought and resisted the idea of a single source of truth.

"That clearly influenced me," said Schempp, who is now an atheist and attends the First Parrish Unitarian Universalist church in Bedford, Mass. "Unitarians have a long history of standing up for individual conscience."

But one by one, his Jewish, Catholic and Protestant friends backed out of their plan as their parents advised them against it. Schempp's parents, however, were more supportive when he expressed his concerns to them the day before his protest on the drive home from a long Thanksgiving weekend at his grandmother's house.

And after the protest, when Schempp told his parents during dinner that he had been sent to the principal's office for not participating in the Lord's Prayer, his dad suggested he write to the American Civil Liberties Union to request its help and advice.

Ellery Schempp grabbed a piece of his father's company letterhead, on which he typed out a brief request that the Philadelphia office of the ACLU challenge the constitutionality of the law.

"I thank you for any help you might offer in freeing American youth in Pennsylvania from this gross violation of their religious rights as guaranteed in the first and foremost amendment in our United States constitution," Schempp confidently concluded his letter.

Consensus decision

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