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My Supreme Court Case


This article originally appeared as part of SSA eNews No. 10 - My Struggle with Disbelief, Part 2.

Ellery SchemppThis article was written by Ellery Schempp.

There was this Supreme Court case, Abington vs. Schempp, decided in 1963; some call it a "landmark case". I am one of those Schempps and I have some memories from 1956-1963, when I was an 11th grade kid in the Abington public schools, a suburb of Philadelphia. At that time in Pennsylvania schools, we had something called "Morning Devotions". We all assembled in our home rooms for attendance at 8:10 AM, 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." Several of us kids picked this up, and we read 'begats' for a week or so. Finally our teacher saw the joke and said, "no more begats". I guess that so much begetting suggested sex--horrors! I saw this, so 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 "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.

Over the years many people urged me to read the Bible to "see the 'truth' for myself". 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.

I always walked to school or road my bicycle. 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. 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 an example that the Bible wasn't the only source of "truth". It might have been the Baghavad 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, Allan Glatthorn, who made us write a 500-word essay, due 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 experiment, 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 his words, "I have sworn eternal hostility against every tyranny over the mind.". And I admired Tom Paine's writings in The Age of Reason.

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 had a lot of fun meeting and talking and laughing. In this wonderful group of friends, I learned a whole lot from the give and take of ideas. 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" are cornerstones of democracy, and no religion should have a preferred position. What was devotional Bible-reading doing in the public schools? (I expanded on this in a sermon at home.comcast.net~fpbsermons/Schempp-TheDemocraticWay.htm.

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

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.

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:


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. There is much more about the case at en.wikipedia.org.

People often ask me about my reaction when the SC handed down the decision in 1963. 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, James Wilson, 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. I 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.

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 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, Mormons, freethinkers, and how many views had been suppressed by a dominant church over the years. 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 1954-1963 there was a lot of opposition to desegregation. Senator James Eastland from Mississippi said after the 1963 decision, "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.

Of course, there was an outcry against the decision. 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". I think that we have given up many superstitions, witch doctors, god's punishment as an explanation for illness, and belief in a flat earth, and we have been better off for it.

I realized that some people considered this as an attack on their beliefs and wanted to condemn anyone who thought differently. 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." 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.

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; as individuals we are always a minority. 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."

This what I mean 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 has lots of symbolism already; there are churches on almost every street corner and they all have cross symbols. I come back to the idea that prayer and Bible-reading is a ritual superstition.

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.

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 … in secret; … 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: … Matthew 6:8.

Overall, we took the reactions with a sense of humor. You only can laugh when a "Christian" says, "go to Hell, we don't need no frigging non-believers". When a fellow American says, "Go to commie Russia, you are not welcome here."

In the years since, 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. 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.

In 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 Martin Luther's. 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 a personal belief 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 en.wikipedia.org 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. Some other important decisions include:

  1. 1968 - Epperson v. Arkansas
  2. 1971 - Lemon v. Kurtzman
  3. 1983 - Bob Jones University v. United States
  4. 1985 - Wallace v. Jaffree
  5. 1987 - Edwards v. Aguillard
  6. 1992 - Lee v. Weisman
  7. 1994 - Board of Education of Kiryas Joel v. Grumet
  8. 1996 - Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District
  9. 2002 - Glassroth v. Moore: Judge Roy Moore & His Ten Commandments Monument

The case did change our lives a little bit. My sister, Donna wrote, "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."

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 each one with a return address (by hand; this was before Xerox machines and computers). 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; you must be Catholics; you must be Baptists, etc....'". 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 to discuss issues of separation of church and state and the science of evolution. I am a member of a Unitarian-Unversalist church, the American Humanist Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Secularist Student Association, and I support many other organizations active in social justice and civil liberties. I get much happiness from these connections.

This article originally appeared as part of SSA eNews No. 10 - My Struggle with Disbelief, Part 2.

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