Constitutional Faces: Ellery Schempp of Abington v. Schempp

August 6th, 2013

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Supreme Court’s opinion Abington v. Schempp, finding unconstitutional banning mandatory bible readings in public schools. The Philadelphia Inquirer profiles the eponymous plaintiff Ellery Schempp, who is now 72.

When Schempp’s homeroom teacher read aloud 10 verses from the New Testament at the start of the day, as required by Pennsylvania law, Schempp brazenly paged through a Quran he had borrowed from a friend. When a student read the Lord’s Prayer over the public address system, another daily requirement, Schempp refused to stand.

Those actions earned him trips to the principal and guidance counselor, and triggered years of litigation over his belief that such readings were unconstitutional. At the time, Pennsylvania was among three dozen states that required such readings in public schools. “When I started this protest, I had no idea it would lead to court, let alone the Supreme Court,”

Schempp, 72, a retired physicist now living near Boston, said in a recent interview on the court’s decision, handed down on June 17, 1963. He looked back at what his dissent achieved and the price his family paid. “I thought it was pretty clear that the morning devotions were a religious practice” and therefore prohibited by the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which says government should not give preference to any particular religion, Schempp said. “I thought if I simply pointed that out, the grown-ups, they would fix it.” Instead, he incurred the wrath of school administrators.

When they failed to act, Schempp, whose family practiced as Unitarian Universalists, sought legal representation by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Along with his letter seeking the group’s help, he enclosed a $10 donation. “Ten dollars at that time was probably $100 in today’s money,” Schempp said. (Actually, it would be $85.85.) “If a kid could save that from his grass-cutting and chores, then he really must be serious. It definitely played a role in getting their attention.”

What an astonishing case of retaliation!

Schempp, an honors student, was accepted at every college to which he applied. He chose Tufts University in Medford, Mass. But Stull was furious about the lawsuit, Schempp said, and tried to sabotage his applications with letters of “dis-recommendation.” Years later, Schempp said, he learned from the dean of admissions at Tufts that Stull also called to express his disapproval. “In 1958 [a long-distance call] was a very big deal. He said Tufts had made a terrible decision and that I was the rotten apple in the barrel,” Schempp said.

H/T Steve Rappoport