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Innovation & Growth Initiative: Montgomery County Benchmark
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Abington School District v. Schempp
Ellery Schempp graduated from Abington High School in 1958. He earned a Ph.D. in physics from Brown University and worked with GE Medical Systems to develop MRI technology. In 2002, Dr. Schempp was elected to Abington Senior High School's hall of fame for his accomplishments in physics. In his acceptance speech, he opened with the line, "I never thought they'd invite me back here."
In the 1950s, at the beginning of the school day, students who attended public schools in Pennsylvania were required to read at least ten verses from the Bible. After completing these readings, students were required to recite the Lord's Prayer. Students could be excluded from these exercises by a written note from their parents to the school. When Schempp opened the Quran during Bible-reading time in 1956, he wanted to show that there were other holy books. After he refused to stand for the Lord’s Prayer, his teacher called him aside, and he was sent out of the classroom.
That evening, Schempp wrote the American Civil Liberties Union to ask for help, and the case began its trip to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Earl Warren's court accepted the case, and heard oral arguments on February 27–28, 1963. On June 17 of that year, an 8-1 decision was handed-down and immediately seen for what it was – a landmark case.
The majority of eight included Warren, Hugo Black, Byron White, William O. Douglas, Authur Goldberg, John M. Harlan and William J. Brennan, Jr. The majority opinion was written by Associate Justice Tom C. Clark, who concluded that the Constitution forbids state establishment of religion, prayer is religion, and thus prayer in public schools is constitutionally impermissible. According to Joseph Kobylka, they found that Pennsylvania law and Abington's policy, requiring public school students to participate in classroom religious exercises, violate the religious freedom of students as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The required activities encroached on both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment since the readings and recitations were essentially religious ceremonies and were "intended by the State to be so." Furthermore, argued Justice Clark, the ability of a parent to excuse a child from these ceremonies by a written note was irrelevant since it did not prevent the school's actions from violating the Establishment Clause.
A single vote was cast against Shempp. Justice Potter Stewart's dissent charged the majority with hostility to religion. In addition, Stewart noted that the separationist doctrine enunciated by the Court in the two prayer cases (Abington School District v. Shempp and Murray v. Curlett) posed a difficult logical challenge: if states sought to protect free exercise rights (say, by paying military chaplains to minister to the needs of troops in battle zones) they could run afoul of the Establishment Clause by pursuing policies that were primarily (if not solely) religious in purpose. He contended that his approach, stressing the preeminence of free exercise values, would avoid this dilemma.
In 2007, Stephen D. Solomon, professor at New York University, wrote a book Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer (University of Michigan Press, 2007 ISBN 978-0472108374). Solomon explores the political, cultural, and religious roots of the controversy. He asserts that the Supreme Court's decision in Schempp's favor was one of the most important rulings on religious freedom in our nation's history. It prompted a conservative backlash that continues to this day, in the skirmishes over school prayer, the teaching of creationism and intelligent design, and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase "under God."
In a modern sense, the case was dealing with the same fundamental issues as Thomas Jefferson's Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, which states that "our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry, that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right, that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it..."
The Virginia Legislature enacted the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom 1786. Jefferson first drafted it in 1777.
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