BBC discusses historic court case on church-state separation

November 30, 2016 • 10:00 am

In 1956, a 16 year old Pennsylvania high school student named Ellery Schempp finally had enough of his school’s practice—shared by schools in other states (see below)—of reading ten verses from the Bible each morning, followed by a mandatory recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Schempp, who became a physicist as well as a mountaineer (he was part of the first expedition to climb Nanga Parbat), knew that this enforced religious exercise violated the First Amendment, as it was slanted towards a particular religion: Christianity. Even though Schempp was nominally religious (well, a Unitarian Universalist, a hairsbreadth from atheism), he decided to act.  He brought a Qur’an to class and refused to participate in the recitations. He was a brave young man.

Later Schempp, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, brought suit against the school district in a landmark case that wound up seven years later in the Supreme Court: Abington School District v. Schempp (1963). He and the ACLU won.

The BBC has just interviewed Schempp as part of a 15-minute Radio 4 documentary  about the case that you can hear by clicking on the screenshot below. (The BBC program is available in the US and should be elsewhere). It was one of the first cases to challenge the pervasive religiosity of the 1950s in America. And the show is well worth hearing.


Here’s Wikpedia‘s summary of the court case:

Pennsylvania law, like that of four other states, included a statute compelling school districts to perform Bible readings in the mornings before class. Twenty-five states had laws allowing “optional” Bible reading, with the remainder having no laws supporting or rejecting Bible reading. In eleven of those states with laws supportive of Bible reading or state-sponsored prayer, the state courts had declared them unconstitutional.

The district court ruled in Schempp’s favor, and struck down the Pennsylvania statute. The school district appealed the ruling, and while that appeal was pending, the Pennsylvania legislature amended the statute to allow children to be excused from the exercises upon the written request of their parents. This change did not satisfy Schempp, however, and he continued his action against the school district, charging that the amendment of the law did not change its nature as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Because of the change in the law, the Supreme Court had responded to the school district’s appeal by vacating the first ruling and remanding the case to the district court. The district court again found for Schempp. The school district appealed to the Supreme Court again, and, on appeal, the case was consolidated with a similar Maryland case launched by Madalyn Murray.

The district court ruling in the second trial, in striking down the practices and the statute requiring them, made specific findings of fact that the children’s attendance at Abington Senior High School was compulsory and that the practice of reading 10 verses from the Bible was also compelled by law. It also found that:

“The reading of the verses, even without comment, possesses a devotional and religious character and constitutes in effect a religious observance. The devotional and religious nature of the morning exercises is made all the more apparent by the fact that the Bible reading is followed immediately by a recital in unison by the pupils of the Lord’s Prayer. The fact that some pupils, or theoretically all pupils, might be excused from attendance at the exercises does not mitigate the obligatory nature of the ceremony for … Section 1516 … unequivocally requires the exercises to be held every school day in every school in the Commonwealth. The exercises are held in the school buildings and perforce are conducted by and under the authority of the local school authorities and during school sessions. Since the statute requires the reading of the ‘Holy Bible,’ a Christian document, the practice … prefers the Christian religion. The record demonstrates that it was the intention of … the Commonwealth … to introduce a religious ceremony into the public schools of the Commonwealth. (201 F. Supp., at 819; quoted in 374 U.S. 203 (1963))”

17 thoughts on “BBC discusses historic court case on church-state separation

  1. I’ll listen to the broadcast later, but, it being the BBC, I wonder whether they make any mention or complaint of the fact that coerced participation in religious worship is still routine and legally mandated in British schools to this day.

    1. PS, being slightly picky:

      … he was part of the first expedition to climb Nanga Parbat …

      The first *American* expedition to climb Nanga Parbat, in 1977. The first ascent was by Hermann Buhl et al in 1953.

    2. Yes, including the very recent case where pupils at a Catholic school (Taylor High in new Stevenston, Motherwell, Scotland) were disciplined for refusing to attend Mass. Some of these pupils were over sixteen (at that age in Scotland you can get married without your parents permission, but you are not allowed to refuse a school mass without parental permission).

      What it is even more galling about the episode that the mass had a theme – Celebration for Saint Theresa of Calcutta.

      Source – Motherwell Times 4 Oct 2016

  2. He spoke at an Americans United event in Houston awhile back. I got to speak with him for a few minutes about Nanga Parbat. His team was in way over their heads. He was injured (broken ankle) trying to save someone else.

    His talk was very inspiring as he related all of the details behind the court cases and trying to keep their standing to continue appeals.

  3. Just a side note about Unitarian Universalism being “a hairsbreadth from atheism”. That group is moving away from that position and is increasingly consumed by “woo” thinking. There is currently a bit of a battle going on between the secular and the religious folk over the future direction of the UU denomination.

    1. You took the words out of my keyboard, Mark. It’s been a huge disappointment to me and numerous current and former UUs. Just a few minutes ago I responded to a UU Humanist post about a UU “call to prayer” in support of Standing Rock.

      1. Think how disappointed Thomas Jefferson would be. He once mused, “I don’t believe there is a young man alive today who won’t die a Unitarian.” [quote from memory, may not be verbatim, but close]

      2. I was in UU as a kid and I don’t remember any woo being discussed. I hope it recovers from it’s slide toward woo.

    2. Alfred North Whitehead is said to have quipped that the UU creed is “If there is a God, he is at most one”.

      It is estimated that 46% of UUs are atheists.
      However, there is real tension in the denomination between the strong humanists and other members.
      The famous introduction to UUism “Our Chosen Faith” by John Buehrens and F. Forrest Church has on one page some rather nasty words about atheism which seem out of place in that book. (Buehrens, and not Church is responsible for the passage in question. Church is the author of a great book on America’s founding fathers.)

      I was a Unitarian for 22 years from 1989 to 2011, and then threw in the towel, mainly due to increasing frustration at real abuses of power by the top brass in Boston, but also dismay at perennial dysfunctionalities on the ordinary laymen’s level which I have learned outside observers have been noting since the middle of the 19th century.

      1. I too was a UU for many years, but now refuse to join the UU church here, in protest of the dismissive attitude towards humanists/atheists, and the tendency towards more “Woo”. I have informed the minister and various others in the church of my decision, but it doesn’t help. It’s frustrating that a group with such a high percentage of atheists in it’s membership continues to cater to every other group EXCEPT the atheists. Michael Werner, author of “Regaining Balance” deals with this issue. MW calls it “radical inclusiveness”.

  4. In my experience nearly all climbers are atheists. I don’t know if this is universally true, but it sheds an interesting light on the old “no atheists in fox holes” canard. I’ve been to too many memorial services for friends who died climbing – none of the services were religious.

  5. The pessimist in me says that it’s good they did the documentary now…before RBG retires and church-state separation gets rolled back…

  6. Sadly this win in the courts did little to stop the forward movement of religion into education in the U.S. as FFRF can tell us. They fight cases everyday and there are more the next. The religious are winning the battle, if not in the courts, within the system. The newer wave is called charter schools and this gets around everything, including a good education. A better name would be deregulation. The same thing that made everything you see today lean toward management, the corporation and against the individual. Before too many years most of the kids in America will get there education through private schools, religious schools, home school and charter schools. Public schools will be a thing of the past.

  7. Similar to Keith @ 4, I didn’t know this came outta PA either. Who’d’a thunk? And Dover, too!

    All seems very incongruous since I rarely think of PA and progressivism at the same time, but I guess in order to strike down regressiveness, it has to be present in good supply, but not so much that nobody dares to take it on, and in that I guess PA fits the bill.

    This could make for a nicely cryptic bumper sticker, too: Abington High and Dover too! Who has a print shop?

    1. Well, PA was interesting to me personally too – I lived in Pittsburgh for 2.5 years or so, including through 9/11. As a Canadian, it was a very interesting experience. I tried to stay somewhat informed (while a busy graduate student, which made it hard) about the rest of the state, etc. People told me that it was a very “purple” (*) state – for example, about T. Ridge when he was selected by Bush to be the first DHS director.

      (*) How is it that the Canadian Liberals, the US Republicans and (most) Communists are all *red*? 😉

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