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Abington School District v. Schempp

Further Readings

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the Lord's Prayer and Bible reading in public schools in Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L. Ed. 2d 844. The decision came one year after the Court had struck down, in ENGEL V. VITALE, a state-authored prayer that was recited by public school students each morning (370 U.S. 421, 82S. Ct. 1261, 8 L. Ed. 2d 601 [1962]). Engel had opened the floodgates; Schempp ensured that a steady flow of anti-school prayer rulings would continue into the future. Schempp was in many ways a repeat of Engel: the religious practices with which it was concerned were nominally different, but the logic used to find them unconstitutional was the same. This time, the majority went one step further, issuing the first concrete test for determining violations of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

The Schempp ruling involved two cases: its namesake and Murray v. Curlett, 228 Md. 239, 179 A. 2d 698 (Md. 1962). The Schempp case concerned a 1949 Pennsylvania law that forced public schools to start each day with a reading of ten Bible verses (24 Pa. Stat. § 15-1516). The law did not specify which version of the Bible should be used—for instance, it could be the Catholic Douay text or the Jewish version of the Old Testament. But local school officials only bought the Protestant King James Version. Teachers ordered students to rise and recite the verses reverently and in unison, or, as in the Abington School District, students in a broadcasting class read the verses over a public-address system. Teachers could be fired for refusing to participate, and pupils occasionally were segregated from others if they did not join in the daily reading.

The Pennsylvania law was challenged by the Schempps, whose three children also attended Unitarian Sunday school. In 1958, a special three-judge federal court heard the case. The father, Edward L. Schempp, testified that he objected to parts of the Bible. Leviticus, in particular, upset him, "where they mention all sorts of blood sacrifices, uncleanness and leprosy. … I do not want my children believing that God is a lesser person than a human father." Although hardly the first lawsuit on this issue—Bible reading cases in state courts had yielded contradictory rulings since 1910—Schempp was the first to reach a federal court. The three-judge panel ruled that the Bible reading statute violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …") and interfered with its Free Exercise Clause ("or prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]"). Local and state officials immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear Schempp along with Murray as a consolidated case. Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her 14-year-old son, William Murray, were atheists. They had challenged a 1905 Baltimore school board rule requiring each school day to start with Bible reading or the Lord's Prayer ("Our father, who art in heaven …"), or both. An attorney herself, Murray brought the suit only after protesting to officials, stirring up media attention, and encouraging her son to protest in a controversial strike that kept him out of school for 18 days. The suit said the rule transgressed the Establishment Clause by requiring compulsory religious education and violated the Free Exercise Clause by discriminating against atheists. The Murrays originally lost in state courts and on appeal.

When the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the consolidated cases on February 27 and 28, the nation was still reacting to the previous year's ruling in Engel. An uproar over the Engel decision had produced 150 proposals in Congress to amend the Constitution. Schempp gave advocates of school prayer a chance to argue that the Court had been wrong in Engel, and this they did. Attorneys representing Pennsylvania and Baltimore officials denied that Bible reading or prayer had a religious nature, and claimed that it therefore did not violate the Establishment Clause—which, in any event, they maintained, was only designed to prevent an official state religion. Their true purpose, argued attorneys, was to keep order and provide a proper moral climate for students.

The Court stood by the Engel decision. In an 8–1 decision, it ruled that both Bible reading and the Lord's Prayer violated the Establishment Clause. Justice Tom C. Clark's majority opinion differed in a few respects from the previous year's ruling: it admonished prayer advocates for ignoring the law, spelled out in some detail the precedents involved, and laid out the Court's first explicit test for Establishment Clause questions. Founded on the idea of state neutrality, this test had a vital standard: any law hoping to survive the prohibitions of the Establishment Clause must have "a secular purpose and a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion."

The test clearly spelled out the limits. Study of the Bible or religion was acceptable, but only so long as "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education." Religious practices in public school were not allowed under the FIRST AMENDMENT. "While the Free Exercise Clause clearly prohibits the use of STATE ACTION to deny the rights of free exercise to anyone," Justice Clark observed, "it has never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the State to practice its beliefs."

Schempp produced three concurring opinions, notably a 74-page opinion by Justice WILLIAM J. BRENNAN JR. As in Engel, the sole dissent came from Justice POTTER STEWART.

Edward L. Schempp, his wife, Sidney, and two of his three children, Roger and Donna, challenged a Pennsylvania law that made Bible reading in the state's schools compulsory.

Again he disagreed with the majority's emphasis on the Establishment Clause's taking precedence over the Free Exercise Clause. For Stewart, the key factor was whether the states in the case had actually coerced students into praying or Bible reading. He did not think so.

Schempp concluded the initial round of the Supreme Court's prayer ban. However, the issue did not fade from public, political, and religious concern, and it came before the Supreme Court two decades later in WALLACE V. JAFFREE, 472 U.S. 38, 105 S. Ct. 2479, 86 L. Ed. 2d 29 (1985) (a one-minute period of silence for meditation or prayer had no secular purpose and was created with religious purpose).

The constitutionality of student-led prayers made its way to the Supreme Court in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 120 S. Ct. 2266, 147 L. Ed. 2d 295 (2000). The Court held that a Texas public school district could not let its students lead prayers over the public-address system before its high school football games. The school district's sponsorship of the public prayers by elected student representatives was unconstitutional because the schools could not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion. The Establishment Clause barred student prayers as well as those conducted by clergy at school events such as graduation (LEE V. WEISMAN, 505 U.S. 577, 112 S.Ct. 2649, 120 L.Ed. 2d 467 [1992]).

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