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 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.
"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.
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.
The ACLU took up the case, winning at district court level, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision.
Stephen D. Solomon, an attorney and media law professor at New York University who wrote a book about the Schempp decision, "Ellery's Protest," said that in his research he pored over memos and minutes of the justices' deliberations on the case, learning there was overwhelming agreement among the justices on the issue and the decision was written by one of the four conservatives on the court.
"There was broad judicial consensus that state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading was a violation of First Amendment," Solomon said. "It was an easy decision for them."
But the ruling was difficult for the public to accept. It came a year after the court's landmark school prayer case, Engel v. Vitale, in which it found that forcing students in New York to recite a state-composed prayer violated the First Amendment's establishment clause.
Both rulings stoked a culture war between religious conservatives and liberal secularists who both overstated that the court had banned religion from public schools.
"Both extremes had the incentive to overstate it. Militant folks were happy to say that it drove religion out of the schools. Meanwhile, the other side had incentive to make it look as bad as possible to allow Congress to do something to reverse it," said Michael McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School.
Solomon wrote that 146 resolutions were introduced in Congress within two years of the Schempp decision, proposing constitutional amendments that would overturn the decision. School districts, primarily in the South, ignored the ruling and continued religious devotionals in public schools.
While Pennsylvania stopped the practice immediately after the ruling, the Bible reading law remained on the books. Schempp was notified earlier this month that a Pennsylvania lawmaker plans to introduce legislation to repeal the unconstitutional and unenforceable state law.
Although the Schempp and Engel decisions banned ceremonial prayer and scriptural readings, First Amendment scholars point out that the court didn't ban religion from public schools. The rulings simply clarified government's role as a neutral player that should not be in the business of composing prayers or mandating students to read sacred texts without a non-religious purpose.
"The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind," Justice Tom C. Clark wrote for the majority in the Schempp case. "We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard."
In his concurring opinion, Justice Arthur Goldberg, one of five liberals on the court, warned against an extreme interpretation of government neutrality on religion becoming a "brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular and a passive, or even active, hostility to the religious."
In fact, the court said the teaching and study of religious history, comparative religion or the Bible as literature can be valuable. "Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment," Clark wrote.
Haynes said that language triggered a movement in the 1970s and 1980s that actually infused religious studies into the curriculum of public schools and universities.
"Before then, the curriculum was devoid of religion," he said.
The movement has since died down as the focus has turned toward students' rights of religious expression in class, athletic events and graduations.
Haynes and others contend the lack of religious literacy in public schools is one reason for the tensions, prejudice and violence toward faith minorities in the United States.
But introducing religion into the curriculum of public schools isn't easy, and consequently some educators would prefer to avoid it and the controversy it can attract.
"It really goes to people's core values," said David Doty, superintendent of the Canyons School District in Sandy, Utah. "People are very protective of the religious values taught to children. They can get strident and emotional about it."
Haynes said those feelings get to the core of the severe reaction to the Schempp decision.
"The backdrop to the Schempp decision is a very difficult history of America defining itself through its public schools and battling over what messages we give to kids about what kind of country we are," he said. "It’s not just about religion but religion seen as an integral part of our self-definition."
Doty said the key to navigating through this emotional terrain is to have policies that accommodate all sides, secular and religious, so that students' and parents' rights are protected.18 comments on this story
Doty, who has helped craft such policies on the district level, said it takes extra effort to give students alternatives to opt out of a class on the Bible as literature or a choral group that is performing a religious composition and take another comparable course.
But the effort is worth it.
"I have always felt that being able to include religion in the appropriate context and parameters in public schools is critical to saving public schools," Doty said. "More students are fleeing public schools for private schools, home schools and charter schools because of values differences. I think if public schools persist in a hard, thick wall of separation of church and state, it does send the wrong message."