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2010 Freethought Backbone Award - Ellery Schempp, Ph.D.


 Every year at its national conference, the Secular Student Alliance presents the Freethought Backbone Award to an individual within the freethought movement who is a guide and inspiration for secular students and student groups. This person has demonstrated a commitment to the secular values of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics.

In the past this award has been presented to such notable figures as Larry Jones, founder of the Institute for Humanist Studies; Herb Silverman, president and founder of the Secular Coalition for America; Dan Barker, Co-President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation; and former Director of the Secular Coalition for America, Lori Lipman Brown. The winner of the award is invited to speak at the SSA Annual Conference, receives a shiny plaque, and will be featured in an upcoming issue of the eMpirical, our electronic Newsletter.

This year, the Freethought Backbone Award will be presented to Ellery Schempp. Ellery was born in Philadelphia, PA and grew up in the suburban township of Abington. He graduated from Abington Senior High School in 1958, where he had initiated a protest against the daily practice of Bible-reading and prayer in the public schools. With the help of the ACLU and his family, the landmark case (Abington vs. Schempp) reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1963, the Court decided 8-1 that the Pennsylvania devotional practices in public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The decision effectively ended such religious ceremonies in the United States.

Ellery Schempp's contribution to the secular movement is well documented, especially in the book by Stephen Solomon, Ellery's Protest, which describes excellently the whole of the Abington case. Ellery's involvement in the secular movement continues to this day, and while his landmark Supreme Court case against the Abington School district illustrates his substantial contribution to secular causes, his work outside of the movement is also rich and diverse in nature.

Ellery graduated from Tufts University in Medford, MA where he received his Bachelor of Science, cum laude, in physics. Ellery then attended Brown University where he received his Ph.D. in Physics for research into chemical bonding of nitrogen-containing molecules. Outside of academia, Ellery has consistently displayed a love for the natural world and a desire to explore and experience all it has to offer. His travels have taken him far and wide including Greenland, the Arctic, Antarctica, The Alps, and the Himalayas in Pakistan. Ellery's love of hiking and mountain climbing led him to attempt to summit the world's ninth highest peak, Nanga Parbat in Pakistan. Living in Europe, where he worked as a professor at the University of Geneva, allowed him to explore the beautiful scenery, culture, and history of Europe.

Aside from his travels, Dr. Schempp is a renowned physicist and scientific mind, having taught as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, The University of Geneva, and the University of Illinois at Urbana. As a researcher, Dr. Schempp was prolific, authoring and co-authoring over 33 papers in peer reviewed journals. His research interests include chemical physics, chemical bonding, cyclic organic compounds containing nitrogen, and nuclear magnetic resonance. Ellery is also well known for his work in helping to develop Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) for General Electric Medical Systems. His involvement came at an exciting time since MRI was just being developed as a diagnostic imaging tool, and there were many issues related to the strong magnets, the procedures, the siting, the costs, and the efficacy.

After several years in California, Ellery moved to Boston in 1989 where he developed educational materials and consulted for advanced technology firms and the government of New Zealand. Guided by an intense and unabated curiosity, Ellery focused his energy on researching superconducting material employing ultra-cold technology for enhanced energy efficiency and energy storage.

These days, Ellery is enjoying retirement and lives in Massachusetts near Boston with his partner Arlene Germain. He remains active in supporting liberal politics and separation of church and state issues, and in growing dahlias in his garden.

On the Internet, Schempp is known especially for his essay: Gravity: Just a Theory, a spoof on creationist arguments against evolution. Ellery is on the Speakers Bureau of SSA, and he frequently speaks on college campuses, and to UU, Humanist, atheist, and ACLU groups. Playwright Nick Schweitzer has recently completed a one-act play entitled One Step Braver about Ellery's high-school adventure. It is intended for school performances.

Ellery has continuously supported secular causes, and is an active member of the Unitarian-Universalist church in Bedford, MA, the ACLU, the American Humanist Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Center for Science Education, the Secular Coalition for America, the Secular Student Alliance, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Naturalist Society, the Skeptical Society, and others. He has received rewards and recognition from the ACLU, Americans United, American Humanists, Unitarian-Universalists, and now the Secular Student Alliance. In 2002, Ellery was inducted into Abington Senior High School's Hall of Fame-carefully, for his contributions to science, but ending Abington's disillusionment with the Schempps from 44 years earlier.

As an educator, freethought activist, and passionate lover of reason and the natural world, the SSA is pleased to present Dr. Ellery Schempp with the Freethought Backbone Award. His life and work clearly demonstrate a commitment to the secular values of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics.

Past SSA Freethought Backbone Award Winners:

2004 - Michael Newdow
2005 - Herb Silverman
2006 - Larry Jones
2007 - Tom Ferrick
2008 - Lori Lipman Brown
2009 - Dan Barker

Click Here to learn more about the SSA 2010 Annual Conference

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