Constitutional Faces: Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp

May 12th, 2011

Education Week has a lengthy profile about Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp, two school prayer cases, 50 years later. There is a nice description of the plaintiff in Schempp.

While there were several lawsuits in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s challenging public school religious exercises around the country, the story of the Schempp family of Abington, Pa., is the most compelling, Laycock said.

Edward Schempp and his wife, Sidney, were Unitarians who encouraged their children to think for themselves. The Schempps did not believe in the Holy Trinity or in an anthropomorphic God as conveyed in the King James Bible, the version used by many Protestant denominations and used in the public schools since the 19th Century, when educator Horace Mann of Massachusetts introduced the idea of reading Bible verses without comment to children in the “common schools.”

Edward Schempp objected to the daily Bible verses and Lord’s Prayer delivered by students in the Abington schools. He didn’t think many verses of the Bible were appropriate for reading to schoolchildren without further instruction or context. “But he wasn’t sufficiently motivated to do anything about it,” said Laycock.

Enter the Schempps’ oldest son, Ellery, who in November 1956 started a personal protest against the religious exercises, one he had given much thoughtful consideration. Ellery, a junior at Abington High School at the time, “put a borrowed Koran on his desk, opened it to a random page, and kept it open while the morning prayers were delivered,” Laycock said.

Ellery faced consequences at school, but he was eventually allowed to leave his homeroom class during the daily devotionals. But he personally contacted the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to see whether it would be interested in challenging the 1913 Pennsylvania law mandating the daily religious exercises.

Abington v. Schempp was not a test case stirred up by lawyers looking for a client,” Laycock noted.

Laycock noted that because he had graduated from Abington High School during the course of the litigation over school prayer, Ellery Schempp was substituted as a plaintiff in the suit by his younger siblings. Despite efforts by an administrator at the high school to discredit him in his college recommendations, Ellery was accepted at Tufts University, where he became active in civil rights and a supporter of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He earned a doctorate in physics from Brown University, and, among other things in his career, helped develop medical imaging technology for General Electric. Now in his 70s, he is retired and lives in the Boston area.

In 2002, Ellery Schempp was inducted into Abington High School’s hall of fame for his achievements in science. But among Schempp’s other accomplishments, the school noted the following: “Initiated school prayer suit against Abington which was eventually decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963.”

I will have to check out this book about the case:

Laycock said that many of the personal case details in his lecture came from the book Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer, by Stephen D. Solomon (University of Michigan Press, 2007). I can also heartily recommend Solomon’s book.

Solomon, an associate professor at New York University who interviewed Schempp family members and others involved in the case, notes in the book that while the school prayer decisions were met with protests and widespread non-compliance, at least the Abington school district promptly obeyed the court’s mandate.


H/T How Appealing