50 Years After Abington v. Schempp, a Dissenter Looks Back on School Prayer

The Philadelphia high schooler whose protest led to a landmark Supreme Court decision is now 72, and living in Boston.
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Ellery Schempp in his living room with a copy of the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Abington v. Schempp (Linda K. Wertheimer)

In 1956, Ellery Schempp, a 16-year-old junior at Abington Senior High in a Philadephia suburb, started a dispute that would pit him against his high school, conservative Christians, and a society eager to paint America as a devout country in its Cold War with the Soviet Union. What began as a quiet homeroom protest led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling on June 17, 1963, that declared the requirement of daily Bible readings and prayer in public schools to be unconstitutional. At the time, not just Pennsylvania, but three dozen other states allowed Bible readings in the public schools through various means, including laws or court decisions. As Schempp was to note nearly six decades later, the country at the time was barely out of the McCarthy era: Congress had recently added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance all to contrast "us" with the "godless Communists." Within Abington High, administrators stressed conformity, whether it was about the Bible readings, hair styles, or clothing.

Today, Ellery Schempp is a 72-year-old retired physicist from suburban Boston. He has spent the last few months at events celebrating the fifty-year anniversary of Abington v. Schempp, including one at The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, where a pair of religious school teachers and children ranging in age from 4 to 13 performed a skit reenacting Schempp's original homeroom protest.

"I was touched by the children here," said Schempp, grinning upon taking the floor after the skit. "First of all, I noticed that they didn't know the Lord's Prayer. You can blame me for that."

"He was a real classic American dissenter," says New York University journalism professor Stephen D. Solomon, author of the 2007 book, Ellery's Protest, How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer. "He felt that his rights were being violated and the rights of his classmates. He stood up in a very unpopular cause."

But Schempp, whose life from age 16 to 23 was largely defined by the case, spent much of his adulthood building an identity separate of the young man whose protest became legendary. After graduating from Tufts University and going on to earn a Ph.D. in physics from Brown, Schempp worked as a physicist and manager on superconductor projects, MRI systems, and nuclear waste. He was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and taught as a guest professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. He also climbed mountains in Greenland, Switzerland, and Pakistan.

He began renewing his interest in First Amendment causes in earnest in the 1990s when he became concerned about the religious right's increasing attempts to put religion back in the schools. Over the years, he had changed from a young Unitarian vague about his religious beliefs to an adult who firmly believed there was no such thing as a supernatural power. Today, he is a Unitarian who also refers to himself as an atheist and secular humanist.

Known as relatively quiet and scholarly as a teen, he has become a frank and often humorous advocate for the cause that made him famous and for the rights of non-believers.

Schempp never intended to be a lone dissenter in November 1956 when he brought a borrowed copy of the Koran to school. He was a part of a group of honor students who met weekly at an English teacher's house to discuss intellectual issues. At one meeting, Schempp brought up the Bible readings in school and how they violated the First Amendment. Many of his peers agreed to stage a protest, Solomon recounted in his book on the case, but later dropped out because they feared problems with college recommendations or their parents.

Schempp's parents, though, backed his idea. And a sense of fairness motivated the teen. He knew his Jewish friends were uncomfortable and believed the same must be true for other religious minorities and non-believers.

So Schempp made his protest alone. As his homeroom teacher read 10 Bible verses to the class, Schempp leafed through the Koran. He refused to stand when a student began reading the Lord's Prayer over the announcement system. Nor did he recite the prayer. He sat in nervous silence. When homeroom ended, his teacher confronted him and asked him which book he had been reading. She asked if he planned to repeat his actions again. He said yes.

"When I was sent to the principal, he lectured me about respect for the school's rules," Schempp recalled in his booming voice as he faced the audience in the pews of the Philadelphia church in February. " 'Was I having problems at home or respect for authority?' the principal asked. 'No,' I reassured him, 'I just disagreed with Bible readings in school.' "

The teen then was sent to the guidance counselor's office for an evaluation to see if something was wrong with him. That night, he told his parents what happened, and at his father's suggestion, he typed a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union and enclosed $10. He read the letter aloud to his audience of roughly 200 in Philadelphia. In the letter, he asked for information the organization might give regarding ACLU action or help in testing the constitutionality of the Pennsylvania law which, according to the teenager, "arbitrarily (and seemingly unrighteously and unconstitutionally) compels the Bible to be read in our public school system. I thank you," he concluded, "for any help you might offer in freeing American youth in Pennsylvania from this gross violation of their religious rights as guaranteed in the first and foremost Amendment in our United States' Constitution."

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Linda K. Wertheimer is an education writer based in Boston. 

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