Today marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark case for the separation of church and state – Abington School District Vs. Schempp. The court decided 50 years ago, in an 8-1 decision (do you think that would happen today?), that mandatory Bible reading in public schools was unconstitutional.
Justice Tom C. Clark said of this decision,
“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. 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 the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.”
At the time, it was Pennsylvania and four other states that had mandatory Bible readings with 25 allowing ‘optional’ (but let’s be real: how optional were they really?) Bible reading, and the remaining having no laws for or against Bible reading. In eleven of those states with laws supportive of Bible reading or state-sponsored prayer, the state courts had declared them unconstitutional. In the Abington school district specifically, it was mandatory that each student recite ten Bible passages and the Lord’s Prayer during homeroom. One day, Ellery Schempp (the son of the man who filed the suit, Edward Schempp) opted instead to bring a Qu’ran and read it and was immediately sent to the principal’s office. It took until five years after he graduated from high school (1963) for the court case to be ruled in his favor.
I actually met Ellery Schempp a few years ago at the 2010 Secular Student Alliance conference in Columbus, Ohio. He’s a fascinating and well-accomplished man. Other than being the plaintiff in a landmark case (though it was his father that filed it), he’s a physicist and still continues to be an active supporter and advocate for the separation of church and state. He’s on the speaker’s bureau for the Secular Student Alliance and on the advisory board as well. At the 2010 conference, he was awarded the Freethought Backbone Award and in 1996, he received the Religious Liberty Award from Americans United. Ellery Schempp is an upstanding man and it is wonderful having him on our side.
On a somewhat funny side note, the document of Pennsylvania that was declared unconstitutional? It’s still on the books! Of course, it’s unenforceable, but it’s still there. However, almost fifty years later, Rep. Mark Cohen(D) of Philadelphia is planning on introducing legislation to finally repeal the section. Mind you, this might be difficult in the state that mark 2012 as the Year of the Bible, October 2012 as Prayer Month, and May 3rd, 2012 as a Day of Prayer…
Regardless of the nonsense that the government of Pennsylvania has done over the last year or though, thank you Ellery Schempp and family for being brave enough to stand up in a time where it was most certainly not easy to do so, and uphold the Constitution in ways that seem oddly strenuous for some members of Congress.