Ellery Schempp, at 16 years of age in 1956, stayed in his seat while the rest of his high school class stood to recite the Lord’s prayer; he flipped through the Koran while his homeroom teacher recited ten verses from the Bible. What began as a quite protest in his Philadelphia high school became Supreme Court case Abington v. Schempp, which declared Bible readings and prayer in public schools unconstitutional.
“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,” and his parents backed his idea.
“I was touched by the children here,” said Schempp recently after watching a fifty-year anniversary skit performed by 4-13-year-olds, reenacting his classroom protest. “First of all, I noticed that they didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer. You can blame me for that.” Today, Schempp is a Unitarian and self-proclaimed atheist and secular humanist.
Whether or not the children know Schempp by name, they certainly live with his legacy. When told, “Back in those days, we read the Bible in school,” one child who now attends Schempp’s former high school immediately replied, “They can’t do that. It’s against the Constitution.”
But this legacy, according to The Atlantic, carries with it some unintended consequences:
Yet, if anything, over time, the Supreme Court ruling has led to a bigger presence of religion in the schools and more student expression of religion, says Charles C. Haynes, the First Amendment Center’s senior scholar.
It took a while, but by the late 1980s, educators started to reach consensus about how to teach religion. Guides were published about how to treat religious holidays in the schools, how to teach students about religious traditions, and how to create equal access for organizations, including religious clubs on campus. In 1995, roughly three dozen groups representing numerous faiths as well as a secular humanist organization designed a joint statement on religious liberties, showing support for what could be done legally in the schools, and disputing the claim that schools were “religion-free zones.”
It is now common for high schools to allow religious clubs, Haynes says. Furthermore, many schools across the country now offer courses about the Bible or about the world’s religions. All of this, he says, is part of the Schempp case’s legacy.
That the outcome of the Schempp case led to “a bigger presence of religion in the schools,” however, is debatable. When educators “started to reach a consensus about how to teach religion,” the consensus was that it could be taught as a sociological phenomenon, an interesting subject for historical analysis, and a source of influential literature, but by no means as religion. That has no place in public schools.
Religion has even become a problem at religious schools, as when Gonzaga University, a Catholic Jesuit school, initially denied the Knights of Columbus official student club status because the club practices “religious discrimination” (and “gender discrimination”) by admitting only Catholic men.
The consensus that religion is fine—and even helpful for and school’s PR, so it may be viewed as inclusive—as an idea but that religion qua religion is dangerous at school is what leads to protests like that of the young man who ripped up his graduation speech to recite the Lord’s prayer in defiance of school policy.
Schempp’s legacy is unfortunately closer to the sixteen-year-old’s original intentions than The Atlantic is willing to admit.