Awesome Anniversary Fifty Years Ago, Official School Prayer Sent Packing

On June 17, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down one of its most important rulings dealing with the role of religion in public education, a decision whose effects are still felt today.

In Abington Township School District v. Schempp, the high court struck down mandatory, coercive, and school-sponsored forms of religious worship in public schools. The 8-1 decision was a powerful reaffirmation of religious freedom and parental rights, by which the court declared definitively that the public school system, as an arm of the government, has no business compelling youngsters to pray or read the Bible.

Religious conservatives weren’t pleased. Almost immediately they began lobbying for a school prayer amendment to the Constitution. Dozens of proposals were introduced in Congress, and hearings were held sporadically throughout 1964.

In the Senate, the leading proposal was the Dirksen Amendment, named for its sponsor, U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-IL). The amendment passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but failed on the Senate floor. There it received a simple majority of 49-37 but fell short of the two-thirds majority required to pass a constitutional amendment. The Schempp decision survived, and every subsequent attempt to nullify it via constitutional amendment has failed as well.

Behind every case like this there is a human face. In the Schempp ruling, that face belongs to Ellery Schempp, who in the early 1960s was a brave high school student in suburban Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania law at the time mandated that public schools open the day with recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and a reading of ten verses from the King James Version of the Bible. These fundamentally Protestant practices rankled lots of families. but Schempp came from a family of activists and, when he decided to take this issue on, they were firmly in his corner. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Schempps won a victory that has shaped church-state law for fifty years.

As Schempp’s case was winding its way through the courts, Madalyn Murray O’Hair was challenging school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in Baltimore, Maryland, public schools on behalf of her son William. The two cases reached the Supreme Court at the same time, which consolidated them.

After the decision came down, the plaintiffs took sharply different paths in life. Ellery Schempp went on to college; Madalyn Murray O’Hair formed American Atheists. And many years later William Murray switched sides and became a right-wing Christian evangelist. He now attacks the decision that bears his name, Murray v. Curlett.

But Schempp never wavered from his commitment to church-state separation. His parents, Ed and Sidney, were active in various causes and passed that spirit on to their children. After high school, Schempp focused on education and then work, but as an adult he remained involved in a number of civil liberties and social justice issues. In 1993 I tracked him down for a story I was writing about the thirtieth anniversary of the case. I’m pleased to say that we’ve been friends ever since.

Now retired, Ellery Schempp often talks about his case at Unitarian-Universalist churches, humanist meetings, colleges, and other venues. Last year he spoke at Harvard Divinity School, telling the crowd, “One of the things that’s so disappointing to me is that fifty years after the Supreme Court decision, we’re still fighting some of the same battles. You’d have thought they would’ve abated by now.”

Indeed. But the simple truth is that some people have never made their peace with the school prayer rulings. Aside from promoting school prayer amendments, religious right groups have tried various schemes over the years to get around the decision.

A common tactic is to promote so-called “student-initiated” prayers. The thinking here is that if the prayers are offered by students as opposed to school officials, they’ll pass court muster. They won’t because they’re still coercive. The Supreme Court, in a decision handed down in a 2000 case dealing with student-led prayers before high school football games, made that clear. But state legislatures won’t give up. Some have even tried calling prayer something else. Florida has a law on its books allowing students in public schools to deliver “inspirational messages.” So far, no school system has dared implement it. They know they’ll be sued.

Earlier this year, Mississippi adopted a new law that requires public schools to develop policies that will allow students to lead prayers over public address systems and at school-sponsored events. Legal experts say the measure isn’t likely to fare well in federal court.

In Missouri, voters went so far as to approve an amendment to the state constitution that purportedly protects voluntary prayer in public schools.

Of course, voluntary prayer is permitted. That’s never been an issue. The right of a student to engage in a private, non-disruptive prayer at any point during the school day is secure. Religious right activists have deliberately distorted the Schempp ruling to imply that it banned all forms of school prayer. It didn’t. Only coercive, school-sponsored prayer was tossed.

And good riddance to it. It was always unworkable. (Interesting fact: the first people to speak out against school prayer were Roman Catholics in the latter half of the nineteenth century. They filed lawsuits against it in state courts and won many of them.) Now our country is more diverse than ever. No “one-size-fits-all” prayer could possibly be devised. Even if it were, truly religious people wouldn’t care to recite it—and it would still alienate nonbelievers.

A better idea is to listen to the words of Justice Tom Clark, who wrote the Schempp opinion. Clark observed, “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment. But the exercises here do not fall into those categories. They are religious exercises, required by the States in violation of the command of the First Amendment that the Government maintain strict neutrality, neither aiding nor opposing religion.”

Our public schools should be neutral on questions of theology, and the men and women who work in them should recognize that the religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) of the students they teach are none of their business. Religion should be discussed only when it is relevant to the curriculum and then in an objective manner with the aim to educate, not indoctrinate.

Although we still have problems with inappropriate forms of religion in public schools, most institutions these days play by the rules and focus on teaching, not preaching. It has been that way for half a century now.

For that we can thank Ellery Schempp and his family.