Forty years ago this month the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that struck down government-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in the public schools, but also sparked widespread misunderstanding among the American people about the role of religion and public education.
On June 17, 1963, the high court ruled 6-1 against a Pennsylvania law requiring the daily practice of having teachers or students lead prayers and read Bible verses in the classroom or over the school intercom. The Abington School District v. Schempp decision, along with other high court rulings, established precedent that federal courts have cited ever since to block governmental efforts to prescribe religious exercises in the nation's public schools.
"The Supreme Court's Abington decision was a win for everyone," said Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn. "It clearly mandated the separation of church and state and protected individual freedom of conscience.
"Perhaps most importantly, it empowered parents," Lynn continued. "The high court said parents not government officials or school authorities have the right to make the decisions about what religious training their children receive."
Lynn criticized the Religious Right for distorting what the Supreme Court did. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other leaders of the movement, he said, have falsely charged that the decision expelled God from public schools.
In fact, said Lynn, the high court in Abington made it clear that the decision only prohibited government-sponsored prayer in public schools, not objective study about religion.
"Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment," Justice Tom Clark wrote for the majority in Abington. "But the exercises here do not fall into those categories. They are religious exercises, required by the States in violation of the command of the First Amendment that the Government maintain strict neutrality, neither aiding nor opposing religion."
Justice William Brennan, in a concurring opinion, insisted, "It should be unnecessary to observe that our holding does not declare that the First Amendment manifests hostility to the practice or teaching of religion, but only applies prohibitions incorporated in the Bill of Rights in recognition of historic needs shared by Church and State alike."
The Schempp family, which challenged the Pennsylvania Bible law, was not on an anti-religion crusade. The Schempp children were reared in a Unitarian church. To the Schempps, the lawsuit was necessary to uphold the constitutional principle of church-state separation. Speaking to Church & State in 1993, Ellory Schempp, one of the Schempp children who objected to the school's daily Bible readings, said his education had led him to believe such readings were inappropriate.
"I had read the First Amendment in social studies class," Schempp said. "It seemed perfectly lucid, yet here was a Christian practice going on in public schools. To me the contradiction was self evident."
The Religious Right would have all Americans believe that the high court in Abington struck a harsh blow against religion. In his decision, however, Justice Clark eloquently concluded that the American ideal of church-state separation protects both faith and freedom.
"The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind," Clark wrote. "We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.