The Kid Who Didn’t StandWith a single defiant act, Ellery Schempp, A62, touched off the Supreme Court case outlawing organized prayer and Bible readings in public schools
It was 1956 and a time of conformity—the era of the organization man, the silent generation, and the idealized family of Ozzie and Harriet. Hardly a time when you would have expected a well-brought-up teenager to defy the policy of his high school and the daily practices of nearly half the school districts in the entire country. Yet that is precisely what Ellery Schempp, a doe-eyed 16-year-old in Abington, Pennsylvania, did.
Abington was a quiet Philadelphia suburb. Farmland in the area was falling to developers as middle-class families escaped the city for a green backyard and better schools. Just that year, the township had opened a new high school with cutting-edge technology such as a public address system and a media center for radio and television production.
All of that nifty technology affected Ellery much less than an honors English class he took in his junior year. His teacher, Allan Glatthorn, required students to hand in a 500-word essay every Monday morning on works such as Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” The students pondered the questions that Thoreau pondered: “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then?”
On Thursday evenings, Glatthorn invited the students to his home for extended discussions of the issues that came up in class. Having gotten them started, Glatthorn encouraged the students to continue meeting on their own in each other’s homes. It was in one of these sessions that Ellery first brought up an issue that had been troubling him for some time. Abington Senior High School, he contended, was violating his and his classmates’ religious freedom.
The violation happened every morning, he said. Consistent with state law, the public schools in Abington opened the day with a reading of 10 verses of the Bible—in practice, the Protestant King James Version because of the large Protestant population. Although the law didn’t mention it, Abington also required students to stand and recite the Lord’s Prayer.
Ellery understood that the First Amendment prohibited the federal and state governments from establishing (that is, endorsing or promoting) a religion. Yet the school’s requirement that all students, no matter what their religious affiliation or belief, listen to readings from the King James Bible and engage in a Christian prayer certainly felt to him like state sponsorship of religion. “It was the establishment of the Christian religion or the Judeo-Christian religion,” he says some 50 years later.
As a Unitarian, Ellery was himself a member of a Protestant denomination. But the King James Bible contained many ideas that were foreign to what he had been taught. “Traditionally—although it’s very hard to speak for all Unitarians because there’s no creed—traditionally, Unitarians do not take the Bible literally,” he explained to a CBS interviewer in 1963. “Many Unitarians do not take Jesus as divinity. So these points, and perhaps the concept of an anthropomorphic God as revealed in the Old Testament, were at particular odds, but by no means were all the objections that I had.”
If King James conflicted with his own beliefs, he reasoned, it must be worse for Catholic students, whose Bible was the Douay Version, and worse still for the non-Christians in the school. Protestantism, he observes, “was not the only religion in the world. There were Buddhists, Muslims, free thinkers, and whatever else, and so to my mind it was crystal clear.”
Ellery had been raised to stick up for what he believed in. From his parents, he learned to question authority and demand a rational basis for decisions that were imposed on him. “They emphasized that it was perfectly all right if you did your own thinking and came to your own conclusions if you could support them,” Ellery recalls. And in church on Sundays, he listened to major intellects like Reinhold Niebuhr, Norman Thomas, and Paul Tillich challenge congregants to become active in public affairs. The more he discussed religion in the schools with his peers, the more convinced he became that he had to do something. He would stage his own act of civil disobedience.
A look at history would have told him that the tradition he sought to defy had roots reaching back to colonial days. The Anglicans and Congregationalists dominated the American colonies, and the schools reflected their religious teachings. In 1683, the state assembly in Pennsylvania required parents to educate their children in reading and writing “so that they may be able to read the Scriptures and write by the time they attain to the age of twelve years.” Students studied the King James Bible, the Ten Commandments, and the catechism, and their textbooks drew their lessons and examples primarily from sectarian religious materials. Many of the teachers were ministers.
The most sectarian practices in the schools, though, could not last after the states began their public school systems in the first half of the nineteenth century. With religious pluralism on the rise, the Anglicans and Congregationalists could no longer insist on their own teachings. In Massachusetts, the state education secretary, Horace Mann, forged a new common religion in the public schools, eliminating the most sectarian teachings and focusing instead on what all the Protestant sects could agree on—the Protestant King James Bible and Protestant prayers. Mann’s vision spread quickly throughout the country.
Of course, this agreement among Protestants left out Roman Catholics and non-Christians, whose numbers were multiplying. Immigration from Ireland alone, stimulated by the potato blight, accounted for more than 45 percent of all immigration to the U.S. in the 1840s. That brought on conflict, sometimes bloody. In 1844, riots between Catholics and Protestants broke out in downtown Philadelphia over the use of the King James Bible in schools. More than a dozen people died before the militia subdued the violence.
Bible reading continued in Pennsylvania, and in 1913 the state legislature made reading of Scripture in the public schools a legal requirement. By 1956, when Ellery staged his protest, Bible readings took place in 42 percent of the nation’s school systems, including 77 percent in the South and 68 percent in the Northeast. About half of the public school systems also required their students to recite prayers and sing hymns.
Some of Ellery’s friends had planned to protest with him, but one by one they dropped out, concerned about college recommendations or the disapproval of their parents. By late November, Ellery understood that he would be alone. On Thanksgiving Day, he joined his family for a feast at his grandmother’s house in Philadelphia. On the way home, he mentioned to his parents that he planned to protest. “Nobody told me, ‘Don’t do that.’ So to my mind, I had a green light,” Ellery recalls. He had visualized a meaningful protest—one in which he would demonstrate that the King James Bible was not the only holy book and that there were other religious traditions being ignored. Over the weekend, he went to the home of a friend and borrowed a copy of the Koran.
On the morning of Monday, November 26, Ellery made the 15-minute walk to school in the chilly autumn air. Tucked into his bag were his textbooks and also his Muslim holy book. He was a little nervous. His actions would surely lead to trouble, but what sort of trouble he had no idea.
When he arrived at Abington Senior High School, he went as usual to Elmer Carroll’s homeroom class on the second floor, where the day started as it always started. Carroll took attendance, then he asked the students to clear their desks. Everyone did as they were told except for Ellery. As a student began reciting 10 verses of the King James Bible over the public address system, Ellery flipped to a random page and began reading silently from the Koran. His mind was racing as he looked down at the page. Was everyone staring at him? When students stood to recite the Lord’s Prayer, he remained silent in his chair. “That was very noticeable,” he says.
A startled Carroll asked him to come up for a talk. Ellery recalls Carroll’s stern tone as he demanded to know why Ellery had failed to participate in the devotionals. “He said, ‘This is a school rule.’ I said, well, I’d been thinking about it, and I could no longer in conscience participate. That left him gasping for words.”
Carroll sent Ellery to talk with the assistant principal, Irvin Karam, and a guidance counselor. Ellery explained his belief that the morning devotionals violated his freedom of religion. Karam said that participation was required as a matter of respect. Ellery said he could not comply. Later in the day, he was called back to the guidance counselor, who told him to report to her office during devotionals from then on. “I’m pretty sure that she and others thought that, well, Schempp will do this for a couple weeks and then give it up and the problem will go away,” he says. But Ellery had other plans. That evening, he typed a letter to the Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, asking the group to represent him in a lawsuit arguing that the devotional activities violated his rights under the First Amendment’s religion clauses.
The local ACLU chapter had committed most of its meager resources at the time to fighting McCarthyism and was not eager to take on a lawsuit over freedom of religion. When the executive committee met, the vote on whether to represent Ellery in a lawsuit against the Abington School District was evenly split. It took a tiebreaker by the chapter president to move the suit forward.
On August 5, 1958, on his eighteenth birthday and shortly before starting classes at Tufts, Ellery testified before a three-judge federal court in Philadelphia. His brother, Roger, and sister, Donna, were there to testify as well. Their presence was critical because Ellery had already graduated Abington High, rendering moot the issue of whether the devotional activities violated his rights. But because his siblings were still in school and affected by the prayer and Bible reading, the lawsuit was allowed to continue.
Ellery’s ACLU attorney, Henry W. Sawyer III, asked him, “Mr. Schempp, do you believe in the divinity of Christ?”
“I do not.”
“Were you read in the course of your instruction at Abington High School material from the Bible which asserted the divinity of Christ?”
“Do you believe in the Immaculate Conception?”
“Were you read material during the course of your time at Abington High School which asserted the truth of the Immaculate Conception?”
Ellery answered in the affirmative.
And so it went, with Sawyer utilizing Ellery and an expert witness to establish that much of the material in the Bible conflicted with the religious beliefs of Ellery and many other students. Ellery’s brother and sister testified, as did their father, Edward Schempp, and administrators from the Abington schools. A key moment was the admission by Abington’s expert witness, Luther Allan Weigle, then dean emeritus of the Yale Divinity School, that the King James Bible used in Abington’s public schools was the Protestant Bible and that it was nonsectarian only for Protestants—not for Catholics and non-Christians.
The federal court ruled unanimously that organized prayer and Bible reading in the schools violated the First Amendment. Trying to save the statute, Pennsylvania lawmakers amended it with a provision allowing children to skip the devotionals if they did not want to participate. Once again the three judges struck down the statute as a violation of the First Amendment.
A federal law then in effect allowed Abington School District v. Schempp to go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, skipping the normal appeals court hearing. In his argument before the Supreme Court on February 28, 1963, Sawyer argued that, while devotional activities enjoyed a pedigree dating back to colonial times, the religious diversity of America had changed everything. “I think that tradition is not to be scoffed at,” he said, “but let me say this very candidly. I think it is the final arrogance to talk constantly about the religious tradition in this country and equate it with this Bible. Sure, religious tradition. Whose religious tradition? It isn’t any part of the religious tradition of a substantial number of Americans.” He added: “It suggests that the public schools, at least of Pennsylvania, are a kind of Protestant institution to which others are cordially invited.”
By an eight-to-one vote that included three of the court’s four conservatives, the justices ruled in June 1963 that organized Bible reading and prayer in the public schools violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”). The devotional activities were a religious ceremony, the court ruled, and the government impermissibly breached the strict neutrality that it was required to maintain—“neither aiding nor opposing religion.”
Ellery was driving with his new bride, Josephine Hallett, J63, in the Badlands of South Dakota when he heard news of the decision on the radio. It had been nearly seven years since he had carried out his protest in a classroom at Abington High. Ellery had been at Tufts for almost the entire time consumed by the lawsuit. The family had borne the brunt of some intense anger in the community. His brother had been pushed around in school, and his sister had been ostracized. Someone had smeared excrement on the front door of the Schempp home, and many of the 5,000 letters the family received were angry, accusatory, and even threatening.
Ellery had followed the slow-moving legal proceedings from the Tufts campus, where he occasionally answered questions from reporters. He originally intended to major in chemistry, but switched to physics and geology on his way to Phi Beta Kappa.
Ellery became president of the Unitarian student association on campus and, in his senior year, served as news editor of the Tufts Weekly. Through it all, he never failed to protest things he thought were unfair. “I remember objecting to required coats and ties in the Tufts dining hall in 1959,” he says. “I was called before the student council and, I guess, censured.” On a more consequential scale, he often joined in demonstrations in front of a Medford Woolworth’s store, held in support of sit-ins during the first half of 1960 by African-American college students at a segregated Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
At Tufts, he also developed what would become a lifelong love of the outdoors. Ellery joined the Tufts Mountain Club and went on outings to New Hampshire. In his second semester, he took a geology course with Professor Robert L. Nichols, chair of the department, who invited Ellery to spend the summer on a project in Greenland and Canada. Not long after, Ellery worked as a field assistant in Nichols’s research program in Antarctica. “It is an amazing thing that some shy boy from Roslyn”—his community in Abington, Pennsylvania—“with no recognized athletic ability got to 400 miles from the North Pole and 800 miles from the South Pole,” Ellery says. Those exotic trips to the ends of the earth broadened in the years ahead to climbing adventures in the Alps, the Sierra Nevada, the Pyrenees, and the Himalayas, where, at 20,000 feet, two members of his party died in falls. Ellery broke his ankle during a rescue attempt, necessitating a risky evacuation by air and land.
Recovering from his accident, Ellery went to teach at the University of Geneva, where he remained from 1977 to 1979. Then he moved to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, where he worked with a group researching salt domes as a potential site for the disposal of nuclear wastes. Next he did research for General Electric Corporation for eight years, developing magnetic resonance imaging systems for medical diagnostics. In 1990, he returned to the Boston area to work on high temperature superconductors and then went out on his own as a technology consultant. He now describes himself as semi-retired.
Most Supreme Court decisions, however controversial, are eventually accepted into the fabric of American life. Not so the Schempp decision. It is a kind of perfect storm of American politics, bringing together concerns over faith, children, and schooling—three of the things people care most passionately about.
Many school districts, especially in the South, ignored the court’s ruling, and only slowly came into compliance with the law. As the religious right gained political strength over the last quarter century, it began aggressively to challenge the Schempp decision and others that had taken devotional activities out of the public schools. A constitutional amendment to return prayer to public school classrooms has been repeatedly introduced in Congress, and the Republican Party made the restoration of school prayer part of its 2004 platform.
Today, litigation continues over prayer in classrooms and at graduation, and over Bible instruction that is overtly sectarian. Kansas has wrangled over the teaching of creationism and evolution in its public schools for some years, and a federal judge in 2005 prohibited the school district in Dover, Pennsylvania, from teaching intelligent design. Teachers have proselytized and handed out religious materials in classrooms, schools have placed the Ten Commandments on school property, and some states permit the display in classrooms of “In God We Trust” posters provided by a private group called the American Family Association. The attempts to return religion to the public schools are apparently limited only by the imagination of those intent on accomplishing it.
For his part, Ellery continues to champion the separation of church and state, and speaks on the issue at churches and before various groups. He is wary of religious leaders who try to inject their own moral views into public policy. “I think it’s supremely arrogant for certain Christian leaders, particularly in the U.S., to daily proclaim they’ve somehow cornered the market on values, ethics, and morality,” he told a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Bedford, Massachusetts. “It is curious why the schools are targeted. Bible reading is not suggested at McDonalds, nor in our workplaces.” He draws much of his inspiration from the difficult history of the civil rights movement. “My family didn’t bear that much social cost, not like the families that suffered the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi.”
More than a half-century after his protest, he maintains a sense of humor about it as well, reflecting somewhat ruefully that he’s a 67-year-old who spends much of his time talking about what he did when he was 16. But now he brings a mature scientist’s intelligence to the fight he is waging against the religious right. A few years ago, he posted online a tongue-in cheek article titled “Warning: Gravity is ‘Only a Theory.’ ” In it he suggested that all physics textbooks include a warning label that gravity “is a theory, not a fact” (as creationists were demanding in regard to the teaching of evolution) and should be approached with an open mind. “It is not even clear why we need a theory of gravity—there is not a single mention in the Bible, and the patriotic Founding Fathers never referred to it,” he argued.
Five years ago, the circle of his protest closed when he received a call from Abington, Pennsylvania. The high school invited Ellery back for induction into its hall of fame, an honor reserved for the school’s most distinguished graduates. Ellery says that Abington’s principal long ago wrote to a dean at Tufts to recommend that the university turn down this troublemaker who had sued the school. Now, although he was honored for his accomplishments in science, his citation mentioned another accomplishment: “Initiated school prayer suit against Abington which was eventually decided by U.S. Supreme Court in 1963.”
As Ellery told the assembled students, all of whom were within a year or two of his own age when he carried out his protest, “When I left Abington in 1958, it wasn’t clear that Abington ever wanted to see me again.”
STEPHEN D. SOLOMON is an associate professor at New York University, where he teaches First Amendment law in the Department of Journalism. Ellery Schempp, the Tufts alumnus profiled here, is the subject of his latest book, Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle Over School Prayer (University of Michigan Press, 2007). Solomon was also a writer at Fortune and has written for The New Republic, The Nation, and other publications.