A victory for the heretics

Ellery Schempp's lawsuit ended compulsory Bible readings in public schools.


Sixteen-year-old Ellery Schempp had read the U.S. Constitution. And it was obvious to him as a high school junior in suburban Philadelphia, back in 1956, that there was a serious discrepancy between the First Amendment and the Pennsylvania law requiring public-school students to start each day with a reading from the Bible.

“I even had the naïve idea that the conflict was a kind of oversight,” Schempp, now 62 and a retired chemical physicist, said in an interview. “And once it was pointed out, the good people who ran the country would correct the error.”

But it wasn’t to be that easy. Instead, Schempp’s refusal to participate in “morning devotions” at Abington High School led to the landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision outlawing mandatory prayer and devotional Bible reading in public schools. He told his story on October 17, 2002, at the Arlington Street Church in Boston at a celebration of historic Unitarian Universalist defenses of civil liberties. A compact man with an erect bearing, an easy grin, and a fringe of white hair, Schempp received standing ovations before and after speaking. “I’m here to stand up for the heretics,” he said.

Schempp recalled that students took turns reading ten Bible verses each morning, then recited together the Lord’s Prayer and Pledge of Allegiance. Neither he nor most of the other students gave the practice much thought, he said, but as he grew older, he became very aware of how offensive some of the passages must have sounded to his Jewish classmates.

Schempp had also read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience. He felt confident that the Constitution was on his side and that he was in an excellent position to make his point. The young Schempp was an honor student, on the track team, and active in his church youth group. He had never been in any trouble at school. He had been taught to think for himself, surrounded by supportive liberal adults—his parents; his mentor, English teacher Alan Glatthorn; and the Unitarian Society of Germantown in Philadelphia, where he had enjoyed hearing Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Norman Thomas, Jack Mendelsohn, and A. Powell Davies speak.

In the fall of Schempp’s junior year, Glatthorn started a voluntary Thursday evening discussion group for his honors English students. “It was a wonderful forum for testing ideas,” Schempp said. “We talked about everything from politics to civil rights to sex. If you made a bad argument, the others would pounce on it. So we really learned which statements would succeed and which would fail, and how to make them politely.”

Several members of the group decided to protest the mandatory Bible reading and prayer. But one by one, for fear of damaging their college chances or provoking parental disapproval, the others dropped out.

“So it came down to me,” Schempp said. His parents had no objection, so on a Monday morning he remained seated during morning devotions, silently reading from a copy of the Qur’an he had borrowed from a friend’s father’s library.

His homeroom teacher—like most people who knew the young man—was flabbergasted. Schempp explained that he could no longer participate in good conscience. The teacher sent him to principal Eugene Stuhl, who was furious. The rest of that year, Schempp spent homeroom period in the guidance counselor’s office, working on algebra homework.

That night, Schempp wrote a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, to which his family belonged. The ACLU agreed to back him, but by the time his case was heard by the U.S. District Court on August 5, 1958—his eighteenth birthday—Schempp was on his way to Tufts University and no longer had what the law calls standing as a plaintiff. But he testified, along with his parents and younger brother and sister, who were still in the Abington schools and remained as plaintiffs.

The Schempps’ lawyer, Henry W. Sawyer III, described the public schools, under the state law, as little more than “a kind of Protestant institution to which others are cordially invited.” Rabbi and scholar Solomon Grayzel told the court that the “idea of God having a son” who claimed to be divine was blasphemous to Jews and cited New Testament passages that ridiculed Jewish people. In September 1958 the court ruled unanimously that the law was unconstitutional.

Up to that point, Schempp’s act of conscience had received scant attention outside his own community. “But the minute the headlines came out ‘Court Rules Bible Reading Unconstitutional,’“ Schempp recalls, “there was no more peace and quiet. People got up and denounced the ACLU, the Unitarians, and the Schempps.”

His brother and sister were harassed in school. His parents received 15,000 letters—about a third in support, a third in polite opposition, and a third vituperative and threatening. He says that the Schempps personally responded to every letter that had a return address, almost 10,000.

Schempp said that his Tufts admissions officer told him that principal Stuhl had called the college to say it would be a big mistake to admit him, and that Stuhl had tried to derail all his applications.

Meanwhile, in 1959, Madalyn Murray (later O’Hair) and her son filed a suit challenging mandatory prayer in the Baltimore schools. Openly claiming the label atheists, the Murrays aroused far more wrath. The children were beaten up, their house firebombed, their cars vandalized, and police and fire departments were reluctant to serve them. No local minister would bury Murray’s father, a lifelong Presbyterian.

Murray lost her case in Maryland and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which combined it with Schempp’s. In 1963 the Schempp family traveled to Washington to hear lawyers for each of the four parties argue their cases before the Warren Court. The Court ruled eight to one that mandatory prayer and devotional Bible reading in public school were unconstitutional. At the time, thirty-seven states had such laws.

Schempp, who now lives in Medford, Massachusetts, learned a lot more about the Constitution than he ever bargained for. “It is a wonderful notion, I think, that 51 percent of the people cannot strip the civil liberties of the other 49 percent,” he reflected. “Ultimately the majority prevails, of course, but only via two-thirds vote in Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states. I consider this a brilliant idea on the part of the Founding Fathers.”

Schempp went on to become active in the civil rights movement, sitting in to protest the segregation of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Boston. During the Vietnam War, he obtained conscientious objector status and counseled other COs as a graduate student at Brown University. He remains a Unitarian Universalist and is a proud member of the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State; he sometimes speaks on the issue. “My biggest concern is having fundamentalists—Christian, Islamic, or otherwise—run the country.”

Last April, Schempp was inducted into his high school’s hall of fame for his achievements in science. While working for General Electric, he was part of the team that developed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) diagnostic technology. He also taught at universities and worked on developing wind and cryogenic power. He still consults in energy, and tutors twenty-six children in math and science.

Back at his school to be honored, Schempp was struck by just how much change his prayer and Bible reading suit had wrought. “Kids now don’t have any recollection of doing this,” he said. “The current generation finds it very odd. There was a reception with the current superintendent of schools, and I asked her what she thought. And she said, ‘I agree with you.’“

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