Abington School District v. Schempp

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Page 8

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the Lord's Prayer and Bible reading in public schools in Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L. Ed. 2d 844. The decision came one year after the Court had struck down, in ENGEL V. VITALE, a state-authored prayer that was recited by public school students each morning (370 U.S. 421, 82S. Ct. 1261, 8 L. Ed. 2d 601 [1962]). Engel had opened the floodgates; Schempp ensured that a steady flow of anti-school prayer rulings would continue into the future. Schempp was in many ways a repeat of Engel: the religious practices with which it was concerned were nominally different, but the logic used to find them unconstitutional was the same. This time, the majority went one step further, issuing the first concrete test for determining violations of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

The Schempp ruling involved two cases: its namesake and Murray v. Curlett, 228 Md. 239, 179 A. 2d 698 (Md. 1962). The Schempp case concerned a 1949 Pennsylvania law that forced public schools to start each day with a reading of ten Bible verses (24 Pa. Stat. § 15-1516). The law did not specify which version of the Bible should be used?for instance, it could be the Catholic Douay text or the Jewish version of the Old Testament. But local school officials only bought the Protestant King James Version. Teachers ordered students to rise and recite the verses reverently and in unison, or, as in the Abington School District, students in a broadcasting class read the verses over a public-address system. Teachers could be fired for refusing to participate, and pupils occasionally were segregated from others if they did not join in the daily reading.

The Pennsylvania law was challenged by the Schempps, whose three children also attended Unitarian Sunday school. In 1958, a special three-judge federal court heard the case. The father, Edward L. Schempp, testified that he objected to parts of the Bible. Leviticus, in particular, upset him, "where they mention all sorts of blood sacrifices, uncleanness and leprosy. ? I do not want my children believing that God is a lesser person than a human father." Although hardly the first lawsuit on this issue?Bible reading cases in state courts had yielded contradictory rulings since 1910?Schempp was the first to reach a federal court. The three-judge panel ruled that the Bible reading statute violated the First...

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