Ellery Schempp

There was this Supreme Court case, Abington vs. Schempp, decided in 1963; some call it a "landmark case".  My memories are from 1956-1963.

But it did not start out this way at all. I was an 11th grade kid in the Abington public schools.  Abington is a suburb of Philadelphia. I always liked school because it was fun to learn new things and time to see my friends. I always walked to school or road my bicycle, partly because I was too shy to ride the bus.  There was a pretty steep hill up from Roslyn, where I lived, to get to the high school, and in 9th grade I couldn't make it, so I walked my bike up.  This was not a 10-speed bike, not even a 3-speed bike--it was a one-speed bike. But I used to enjoy these times to be on my own and to look at the houses, trees, and weather around me. I combed my hair with water, and in winter I thought it was funny that it froze on the way to school.

At that time in Pennsylvania schools, we had something called "Morning Devotions". We all assembled in our home rooms for attendance at 8:10, and then there would be a Bible-reading, followed by standing to recite the Lord's Prayer and the Flag Salute. In elementary grades, the teacher read from the Bible. By 6th grade, the teachers said to the class, why don't you do the Bible-reading? So we did it in rotation.

Nobody ever remembered when it was their turn, so we just opened the Bible at random, and started reading. Pretty poorly, as I recall. It was only necessary to stumble through 10 verses.  I can't recall a single message from it. I mean, if the teacher says do this, mumble, stand, mumble some more, sit down, you just do it. It was like peeing--you just do it, it has no meaning.

By 9th grade, someone had the idea of reading all the begats, y'know  "Abraham begat Isaac... etc."  (Turns out these are in Matthew 1 and Luke 3.)  The rules were, "read 10 verses" and no one said the verse couldn't be read again.  Several of us kids picked this up, and we read 'begats' for two weeks or so.  Finally our teacher saw the joke and said, "no more begats".  This was actually a violation of the State's law, which required that "10 verses of the Holy Bible shall be read... without comment..."  I guess that so much begetting suggested sex--horrors.  I saw this, and then on my next turns, I always read from Song of Solomon.  "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine." "He shall lie all night betwixt my breasts."  1:13   "Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins." 4:5  "Come ... blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits." 4:16   "My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him." 5:4   "Let us get up early to the vineyards ... there will I give thee my loves." 7:12

And 1 Kings:  "King Solomon loved many strange women. And he had 700 wives and 300 concubines." 11:1-3

This was neat stuff in 9th grade in 1954.  The teacher did not like it, but what could he say?  It's in the Bible.

In the years since the Supreme Court decision, people often accuse me of having never read the Bible.  Actually, I have read it. I read it from the beginning, and kept wondering, "what in the world are these guys saying?" The Bible-reading exercise pushed me to read it, and mostly I found it drivel.  And in many places, quite ugly. 

By 11th grade, on my morning and afternoon walks, I had thought more about this. One morning in November, 1956, I refused to participate in this morning devotion. I did not pay attention to the Bible-reading (now coming over a loudspeaker in the classroom) and did not stand up for the Lord's Prayer.

My Homeroom teacher was puzzled, but focused on my disobedience. I was very nervous, but I replied, "This violates my religious conscience and is a violation of the First Amendment."  He sent me to the Principal.

What I actually did was to borrow a copy of the Qu'ran from the library of my friend George's father, and read it silently to myself during the Bible-reading. I opened it at random, as was customary for Bible-reading. I had no interest in Islam, but I merely wanted to choose another "Holy Book" as a statement that the Bible wasn't the only source of "truth".  It might have been the Bhagavad Vita, but that wasn't on our bookshelves.

My protest did not arise in a vacuum. I had the good fortune of having a wonderful English teacher, Alan Glatthorn, who made us write a 500-word essay for every Monday morning. This made it necessary to think. In class we read Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience. I remember reading a column in the New Republic, "It is the glory of youth to think, to rebel." And in Civics class I had read about our Founding Fathers and I read the First Amendment--"Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion..." I greatly admired Thomas Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence.  And I admired Tom Paine's writings in the Age of Reason.

This imbued me with a sense of injustice about the Bible-reading exercise. Clearly this was a religious practice established in violation of the First Amendment.

Glatthorn also did a wonderful thing. He invited us to his house to talk more about things we didn't have time for in class. This evolved into our Thursday evening discussion group, where we kids met in each others' homes to talk.  We became a core group of David, Steve, Vince, Vera, Royal, George, Ellen, John, and we had a lot of fun meeting and talking and laughing. In this wonderful group of friends, every idea could be expressed, and critiques given. I learned a whole lot from this give and take. And my friends thought also that these 'morning devotions' were silly, meaningless in terms of spiritual feeling, a violation of the Constitution, blatant hypocrisy of piety, and merely a power-play on the part of school authorities.

I also came to see the Bible-reading as fundamentally unfair. It was certainly unfair to all non-believers, all Hindus, Buddhists. Whoever said the Bible was the source of all truth? But after the Bible-reading was moved to the PA system run by the "Radio and TV Workshop" I particularly saw that the Bible-reading was chosen at Easter and Christmas to use passages that were particularly Christian and in some cases offensive to Jewish students.  I thought "Liberty, fraternity, equality" were cornerstones of democracy, and no religion should have a preferred position.  What was devotional Bible-reading doing in the public schools?

It may be hard to imagine what the world was like in 1956.  This was just two years after the Supreme Court decided that "separate but equal" was not in accord with our Constitution, thus full integration of Afro-Americans in our society was required.  This time was when McCarthy was seeking out "communists under every bed".  This was a few years after Congress added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, at the urging of the Catholic group, Knights of Columbus. Our principal emphasized "conformity", but the book The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit gave me to think otherwise. I was also much enamoured of the book, The Democratic Way of Life, by Eduard C. Lindemann and C.S. Smith.  So much that 40 years later, I gave a talk based on it.

The school principal lectured me on obeying school rules and "respecting others." I replied that I respected the First Amendment. He sent me to the school Guidance Counselor.

That afternoon I came home and described the events to my parents.  My Dad suggested that I write to the ACLU, and so I wrote:

"Gentlemen: As a student in my junior year at Abington Senior High School, I would very greatly appreciate any information that you might send regarding possible Union action and/or aid in testing the constitutionality of Pennsylvania law which arbitrarily (and seemingly unrighteously and unconstitutionally) compels the Bible to be read in our public school system. 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.

Sincerely yours,

Ellory F. Schempp"

I enclosed $10.  This is like $100 in today's money, and this got their attention.

Many things followed from this simple letter.


Q:  What was your reaction when the SC handed down the decision? 

A: My family and I always felt a strong loyalty to the ideals of the United States, and we were delighted that we won a strong 8-1 decision.  We felt that this decision supported all Americans, from all our different backgrounds.  We were particularly pleased that Justices from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish traditions concurred in the Supreme Court opinions.  We saw that basic principles in our Constitution had been reaffirmed, following from the 1962 case of Engel and the 1961 case of Torcaso, and the ideas of Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, whom we admired.  We felt validated that our Government and Constitution gives us a Supreme Court where ordinary citizens could bring such a case and have it considered--that even as a high school student I could have ideas and, with the support of my parents and the ACLU, valid ideas would win.

My sister Donna wrote me:  "The decision came out on the Monday after I graduated from high school. I was very relieved, thinking I had not gone through all of this struggle in vain. My brother Roger and I went to school the next morning and stood in the hallway to see what they would say over the loudspeaker. They announced there would be no Bible reading that morning and then asked students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I was nervous but happy."

I, Ellery, thought, 'this was affirming for all kids for their personal beliefs'. School students should be free to believe or not believe as they think about religion, without pressure from school "authorities" using the Bible to justify their policies.  I  had heard my principal and some of my teachers saying "The Bible says so" when I asked a question, and I was glad that this was no longer accepted as a "school/government" answer.

I had been confident from the beginning. It was obvious that the Bible was a book that represented only one religious view of morality and liberty, that our government was intended to be neutral about religion, and thus readings from the Bible and recitation of the Lord's prayer unfairly promoted Christianity.  On the other hand, I was 16 when I objected to the Bible-reading practice in Pennsylvania schools. I saw that the Constitution was clear in the First and Fourteenth Amendments. By the time when the SC decision was announced in June 1963, I was almost 23 years old and in grad school,  and I had learned many new viewpoints during my college years, including how many different versions of the Bible and differing beliefs existed: Coptic Christians, Mandeans, Eastern Orthodox, freethinkers, and all the views that had been suppressed by a dominant church.  I saw that the reaction to the decision would be complex, but I gained a new awareness that religious freedom was important, and the SC decision affirmed my conviction that public recognition of only one religious view was unfair.

Some people said we were only looking for publicity.  I was glad that a teenager could be recognized for having thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and not be merely judged on athletics.  I had a little success in running track, but I thought my mind was as good as my legs.  My high school promoted that athletes and pretty girls were stars.  I was glad that being a "brain", and having friends who were "brains", gave equality for thought.  I think the mind is more important over all in life. 

In 1958-1963 there was a lot of opposition to desegregation.  Senator James Eastland from Mississippi said, "The Supreme Court put the niggers in school and threw God out." I knew there were lots of good people who would never agree with such extremist views. I was proud that in some small way we could support racial and religious equality.

Q: Why do you suppose there was such an outcry against the decision?

A: I thought that for some people these school "morning exercises" were like a superstition.  If  'we' always do this, then "some god will bless us". We have given up many superstitions and belief in a flat earth, and we have been better off for it.  I never understood what "blessing" would do-we are free enterprise and we succeed on merits. 

I realized that some people considered this as an attack on their beliefs and wanted to condemn anyone who thought differently.  But I had seen my classmates being put in an uncomfortable position undergoing "morning devotions", reciting one version of the "Lord's Prayer"; in being made to conform and express beliefs that were not their own.  I thought, "Good people will see, when they have considered all the issues, that this was about being fair and that it is not fair to impose one religious idea on others."  This is eventually what happened when many religious leaders spoke to support the SC's decision.

Some people shouted about "majority rule".  But I think the whole purpose of the Bill of Rights is to restrict government power and majorities in order to protect the rights of individual Americans.  Majorities in power do not need protection, but minority views do.

Donna wrote: "Remember, this was the height of the cold war. We separated ourselves from the "godless Communists" by not suppressing religion. I think people were genuinely scared of a nuclear attack, we still had air raid drills. Taking "god" out of the schools I think threatened people about whether 'we would win' or 'the communists would win'. People are still upset about this decision, forty years later. It wasn't just then. There is still the thought that the magic of bible reading and prayer will make the world a safer and more moral place. The events of 9-11 increased the fear and hope for something that will help people to feel reassured. It is hard for people to live in a scary and uncertain world and they cling to things like this to give themselves comfort."

Donna's views are mine: "There is still the thought that the magic of bible reading and prayer will make the world a safer and more moral placeÉ  It is hard for people to live in a scary and uncertain world and they cling to things like this to give themselves comfort." 

This what I meant about superstitious beliefs.  We saw that there were politicians and pastors who wanted to use religion to prop up their legitimacy.  I think our Constitution depends on thoughtful men and women who use the human mind to think about things, use evidence, and rational ways. 

Some people kept insisting that Bible-reading and prayer in the schools was "symbolic".  I never understood this.  Symbolic of what?  It could not be symbolic of our Constitution, which does not once mention God.  It could not be symbolic of our country, which has many different religious groups and opinions.  The majority does not need symbolism, since there are churches on almost every street corner and they all have cross symbols.  I came back to the idea that prayer and Bible-reading was a ritual superstition.

Almost every kid knew that Bible-reading was pretend stuff.  We pretended that we do not think about sex;  we pretended that we believe in Noah's Flood; we pretended to pray.  Pretend is not real respect.  The National Council of Christian Churches (NCCC) supported the Supreme Court, saying that "religion by rote is not spiritual".  Almost every student knew that the "morning devotions" was a silly business and had nothing to do with their personal morality.

We did not see that anything was lost by ending Bible-reading and ritual prayer.  If families and kids want to pray, why can't they do this at home or in church?  Every family can freely pray at breakfast.  Why is there a need to pray again at school?  I noticed that prayer was asked for at school and football games;  I thought this was peculiar.  We do not have to pray when entering a shopping mall or to get a drivers license.

I used to walk to school or ride my bicycle. I loved this. I liked to look at the houses and trees along my way, and to notice the wind and weather on my face.   I noticed that the wind and rain and snow did not depend on prayer.

There were some politicians who made noisy outcries, trying to get identified with God, patriotism, and "motherhood." This was boom-box noise.  Many Christians supported the Supreme Court's conclusions.

We became aware how many differences existed among Christians.  Some seemed to be trying for "holier than thou" in urging public prayers, but others took the Bible seriously as in Matthew 6.   "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. Matthew 6:5.  But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father É in secret; É Matthew 6:6  But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Matthew 6:7.  Be not ye therefore like unto them: É Matthew 6:8. 

Overall, we took the reactions with a sense of humor.  You only can laugh when a senator says: "The Supreme Court put the niggers in school and threw God out."  When a "Christian" says, "go to Hell, we don't need no frigging non-believers".  When an "American" says, "Go to commie Russia, you are not welcome here."

Q: What direction is the SC headed today regarding separation of church and state? 

A:  The Supreme Court's decisions have reaffirmed that our Founders  were confident that you do not have to belong to a church or participate in public prayers in order to be a good citizen and a good person. 

I think that in every year, some churches and some preachers have tried to capture the power of government to promote their faith agendas.  There were times when churches used the Inquisition to suppress new ideas, like Galileo's or the priest's view of morality. The Supreme Court has consistently decided that no religious doctrine can be used to suppress doubters and freethinkers.

When one looks at the history of SC decisions from 1961 to the present, I think the Supreme Court has decided for a good balance between freedom of conscience as to personal belief versus imposing on the privacy of others. The SC affirms that having personal beliefs does not mean a right to public displays of religiosity.  The Supreme Court has applied a basic Constitutional principle: no matter what religion becomes the majority in the USA, then the same principles apply.  Government (schools, police protection, parks, streets, all the things our taxes do) neither favors religion nor hinders it.

I particularly appreciate the SC's decisions in the Griswold case.  There were laws in Connecticut and Massachusetts that prohibited birth control (or even talking about it) based on some churches' faith-belief that this was "immoral".  I am glad that the SC ruled this was an invasion of personal moral considerations and that the prohibition of birth control was based on religious dogma. 

In the years since 1963, the Supreme Court has decided many cases. It is important to recognize that these decisions have come from Justices appointed by 10 different Presidents and confirmed by a majority of Senators elected over 45 years.  This shows to me that SC Justices from many political views have been guided by a deep commitment to the original intent of the Constitution.

1968 - Epperson v. Arkansas
An Arkansas law barring the teaching of evolution in public schools was challenged by a biology teacher. The law is overturned by Supreme Court justices who unanimously hold the Arkansas statute unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause. By prohibiting the teaching of evolution, the state advances a particular religious belief.

1971 - Lemon v. Kurtzman
Pennsylvania and Rhode Island statutes provided for direct state funding for teachers' salaries at parochial schools with the restrictions that the money only be spent for secular instruction. The Supreme Court bars the state aid ruling that such plans cause excessive entanglement of civil authority and religion. The decision establishes a three-part test, known as the Lemon test, for determining whether a law or a government policy violates the Establishment Clause. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

1983 - Bob Jones University v. United States
Bob Jones University was a Christian university that believed interracial dating and marriage was contrary to the its faith.  In 1970, the Internal Revenue Service prohibited granting tax-exempt status to private schools that practiced racial discrimination.  In an 8-1 decision, the Court held that the purpose behind relieving schools from paying taxes is that they serve a charitable function. However, racially discriminatory policies offset these benefits. The government has an "overriding, fundamental interest in eradicating discrimination".  This case clearly demonstrated that the government's interests can outweigh individual religious beliefs. Religious belief can not be used as an excuse for engaging in behavior that violates socially important beliefs.

1985 - Wallace v. Jaffree
The Supreme Court strikes down an Alabama law requiring a moment of silence for "meditation or voluntary prayer." By his own admission, an author of the statute testified before the District Court that the legislation was solely an "effort to return voluntary prayer" to the public schools. The Court established that the purpose of the statute was to endorse religion -- a violation of the first of the three Lemon tests.

1987 - Edwards v. Aguillard
A Louisiana law requiring balanced treatment for the biblical theory of creation science and theory of evolution is struck down by the Supreme Court. The Court finds the state law serves a particular religious purpose by advancing "the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind".

1992 - Lee v. Weisman
The Supreme Court bans school-sponsored prayers offered by clergymen as part of official public school graduation ceremonies. The Court finds that because of the practical and symbolic importance of graduation ceremonies, attendance is "obligatory." Therefore, prayers at graduation ceremonies are the equivalent of state endorsement of religious exercise, a violation of the second part of the Lemon test..

1994 - Board of Education of Kiryas Joel v. Grumet
The New York Legislature creates a new school district comprised solely of a Hasidim village so that the Hasidim community can establish a "public" school for its special-needs students. The school is established with secular teachers and a secular curriculum, but the students and setting are Hasidic. The Supreme Court rules that the creation of the school district violates the Establishment Clause by fostering excessive government entanglement with religion.

1996 - Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District
A Mississippi U.S. District Court rules that broadcasting student-led prayers over the school intercom system and conducting Bible classes are unconstitutional.

2002 - Glassroth v. Moore:  Judge Roy Moore & His Ten Commandments Monument
The SC ruled that no government official can erect a massive monument to the Ten Commandments in a government building by asserting that they have a secular rather than a religious purpose.  The 10 Commandments are clearly a religious document, and they are not acceptable as a religious "foundation for morality" since other sources of moral behavior exist. 

Donna:  "I hope the SC continues to support this separation, as I think it is scary to consider the alternative. But with the current administration and the power of the religious right, I am not as optimistic as Ellery is."

Q:  Did the case change your life?  What about the rest of your family?

A:  Although my school principal wrote negative "recommendations" to the colleges that I applied to, my teachers wrote positive recommendations.  I went to Tufts University, where I had many wonderful experiences.  My brother Roger and sister Donna were ostracized and taunted by some of their intolerant classmates, but both Roger and Donna went to good colleges and have lived well.

Here I add a comment from my sister, Donna:

"I think the Bible reading case put a lot of strain on our family [in the years after I left to attend Tufts]. It was the center of our lives for many years, between letters from people, phone calls, etc. It put a lot of strain on Roger and me who were attending school and being taunted by kids because of it. I, in particular, was embarrassed by it. It was a time when I wanted to be just like everyone else and this, by definition, singled me out. So, although I supported it intellectually, I hated it emotionally. It has taken me a lot of time to recover from that embarrassment and sometimes I get scared, like I was worried how my mother-in-law would react if she found out about it--a little old lady in Iowa who is very religious."  [We revisited our home on Susquehanna Road in Roslyn a few weeks ago.  We were surprised to see the house number changed from 2459 to 2457.  We learned that owners since my folks sold the house and moved to New Jersey got a lot of unwanted mail!]

I think my Dad was the most changed.  We received more than 5,000 letters; about 2/3 against us.  Mom and Dad replied to every one with a return address (by hand; this was before Xerox machines and computers).  We were always amazed by the ones that said, "In the name of Christ, go to Hell."   We learned that a common reaction was, "if you don't believe the same as me, 'you must be evil; you must be fascists, you must be satan, you must be communists; you must be niggers; you must be Jews; ...'".   This pattern of "believers" attacking us irrationally--each claiming to know the "sole truth"--slowly convinced my father that there could not be a god. There were too many competing claims.  He became an atheist and humanist. He died at age 95, content as a non-believer. My Mom as well was turned off by 'blind faith' and threats of damnation; she died in 2004 as a humanist.

In 2002, I was elected to the Abington High School Hall of Fame. I  am proud of this and proud of Abington.  I am proud that Abington schools recognized that our family was not interested in a "black mark" against them, but that we thought of a principle that would benefit all students.  I accepted my award in recognition of my many great teachers and friends, who contributed to my understandings.

We received many letters "praying for us to suffer" and predicting that we would feel "God's wrath", so I am happy to report that I have had many beautiful experiences in my life.  I am very happy that I have seen some of the beauty of our planet, some near each of our North and South Poles; some hiking in many astoundingly neat places, like the Himalayas; the Alps, the Sierras of California, the Rockies in Canada and the US; and nearby in New Hampshire.  I have seen beauty in mathematics and physics and music;  I know the comradeship of many wonderful people.   I think beauty is important.   I like to be a citizen of the entire earth.   I think the SC has helped to preserve these freedoms to enjoy beauty and has reduced some ugliness and inequalities in our society.

As for me, I always had an active interest in all the sciences--physics, chemistry, geology, biology--and thus was interested in the quality of science education.  I always ask: what is the evidence?  What seems to be reasonable and beautiful?  When I saw evolution being attacked by those who believed in religious "creationism" or "intelligent design", I remembered that one of my feelings when I was a teenager was that the Bible (nor any 'holy' book) should not have a favored place in our human exploration of what is true about our world.  I remember at age 17 that I was sure Noah's Flood could not have happened without violating every bit of scientific evidence.

Not even the 10 Commandments make much sense.    Who says there is "only one god"?  I mean, there are so many claims to know "God", and they all compete with each other to say they "know",  but I am doubtful that one of these claims is the "correct" one.    Who has evidence that all morality is based on an ancient text? 

Now I am 65 and I have found that I do not need a god in order to have a good life.  I like to travel, to meet people, and discuss issues of separation of church and state and the science of evolution.  I am a member of a Unitarian-Unversalist church and the American Humanist Association, and I support many organizations active in social justice and civil liberties.  I am active in ethics and morality issues.  I get much happiness from these associations.

 Ellery Schempp



Copyright 2006, ACLU of Massachusetts