Abington School District v. Schempp

Abington School District v. Schempp

Overview
Abington Township School District v. Schempp (consolidated with Murray v. Curlett), 374 U.S. 203 (1963), was a United States Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 case argued on February 27–28, 1963 and decided on June 17, 1963. In the case, the Court decided 8–1 in favor of the respondent, Edward Schempp, and declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools in the United States to be unconstitutional.

The Abington case began when Edward Schempp, a Unitarian Universalist and a resident of Abington Township, Pennsylvania
Abington Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania
Abington Township is a township in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, United States. The population was 55,310 in as of the 2010 census.Abington Township is one of Montgomery County's oldest communities dating back to before 1700 and being incorporated in 1704. It is home to some of the county's...

, filed suit against the Abington School District
Abington School District
The Abington School District covers the Borough of Rockledge and Abington Township in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The district operates Abington Senior High School , Abington Junior High School , Copper Beech Elementary School, Highland Elementary School, McKinley Elementary School, Overlook...

 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is one of the original 13 federal judiciary districts created by the Judiciary Act of 1789...

 to prohibit the enforcement of a Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is a U.S. state that is located in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. The state borders Delaware and Maryland to the south, West Virginia to the southwest, Ohio to the west, New York and Ontario, Canada, to the north, and New Jersey to...

 state law that required his children, specifically Ellory Schempp, to hear and sometimes read portions of the Bible as part of their public school education.
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Encyclopedia
Abington Township School District v. Schempp (consolidated with Murray v. Curlett), 374 U.S. 203 (1963), was a United States Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 case argued on February 27–28, 1963 and decided on June 17, 1963. In the case, the Court decided 8–1 in favor of the respondent, Edward Schempp, and declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools in the United States to be unconstitutional.

Origin of case


The Abington case began when Edward Schempp, a Unitarian Universalist and a resident of Abington Township, Pennsylvania
Abington Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania
Abington Township is a township in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, United States. The population was 55,310 in as of the 2010 census.Abington Township is one of Montgomery County's oldest communities dating back to before 1700 and being incorporated in 1704. It is home to some of the county's...

, filed suit against the Abington School District
Abington School District
The Abington School District covers the Borough of Rockledge and Abington Township in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The district operates Abington Senior High School , Abington Junior High School , Copper Beech Elementary School, Highland Elementary School, McKinley Elementary School, Overlook...

 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is one of the original 13 federal judiciary districts created by the Judiciary Act of 1789...

 to prohibit the enforcement of a Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is a U.S. state that is located in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. The state borders Delaware and Maryland to the south, West Virginia to the southwest, Ohio to the west, New York and Ontario, Canada, to the north, and New Jersey to...

 state law that required his children, specifically Ellory Schempp, to hear and sometimes read portions of the Bible as part of their public school education. That law (24 Pa. Stat. 15-1516, as amended, Pub. Law 1928) required that "[a]t least ten verses from the Holy Bible [be] read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day." Schempp specifically contended that the statute violated his and his family's rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Like four other states, Pennsylvania law included a statute compelling school districts to perform Bible readings in the mornings before class. Twenty-five states had laws allowing "optional" Bible reading, with the remainder having no laws supporting or rejecting Bible reading. In eleven of those states with laws supportive of Bible reading or state-sponsored prayer, the state courts had declared them unconstitutional.

More famous than Schempp was the Mother of the plaintiff, 13 year old Bill Murray in Murray v. Curlett, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who founded the group American Atheists in 1963. The Murray case was consolidated with Schempp's on appeal to the Supreme Court.

The district court arguments


During the first trial in federal district court
United States district court
The United States district courts are the general trial courts of the United States federal court system. Both civil and criminal cases are filed in the district court, which is a court of law, equity, and admiralty. There is a United States bankruptcy court associated with each United States...

, Edward Schempp and his children testified as to specific religious doctrines purveyed by a literal reading of the Bible "which were contrary to the religious beliefs which they held and to their familial teaching" (177 F. Supp. 398, 400). The children testified that all of the doctrines to which they referred were read to them at various times as part of the exercises. Edward Schempp testified at the second trial that he had considered having his children excused from attendance at the exercises but decided against it for several reasons, including his belief that the children's relationships with their teachers and classmates would be adversely affected.

The district court ruling


The district court ruled in Schempp's favor, and struck down the Pennsylvania statute. The school district appealed the ruling, and while that appeal was pending, the Pennsylvania legislature amended the statute to allow children to be excused from the exercises upon the written request of their parents. This change did not satisfy Schempp, however, and he continued his action against the school district, charging that the amendment of the law did not change its nature as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Because of the change in the law, the Supreme Court had responded to the school district's appeal by vacating the first ruling and remanding the case to the district court. The district court again found for Schempp. The school district appeal
Appeal
An appeal is a petition for review of a case that has been decided by a court of law. The petition is made to a higher court for the purpose of overturning the lower court's decision....

ed to the Supreme Court again, and, on appeal, the case was consolidated with a similar Maryland
Maryland
Maryland is a U.S. state located in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States, bordering Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia to its south and west; Pennsylvania to its north; and Delaware to its east...

 case launched by Madalyn Murray
Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Madalyn Murray O'Hair was an American atheist activist and founder of the organization American Atheists and its president from 1963 to 1986. One of her sons, Jon Garth Murray, was the president of the organization from 1986 to 1995, while she remained de facto president during these nine years....

.

The district court ruling in the second trial, in striking down the practices and the statute requiring them, made specific findings of fact that the children's attendance at Abington Senior High School was compulsory and that the practice of reading 10 verses from the Bible was also compelled by law. It also found that:

The reading of the verses, even without comment, possesses a devotional and religious character and constitutes in effect a religious observance. The devotional and religious nature of the morning exercises is made all the more apparent by the fact that the Bible reading is followed immediately by a recital in unison by the pupils of the Lord's Prayer
Lord's Prayer
The Lord's Prayer is a central prayer in Christianity. In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, it appears in two forms: in the Gospel of Matthew as part of the discourse on ostentation in the Sermon on the Mount, and in the Gospel of Luke, which records Jesus being approached by "one of his...

. The fact that some pupils, or theoretically all pupils, might be excused from attendance at the exercises does not mitigate the obligatory nature of the ceremony for . . . Section 1516 . . . unequivocally requires the exercises to be held every school day in every school in the Commonwealth. The exercises are held in the school buildings and perforce are conducted by and under the authority of the local school authorities and during school sessions. Since the statute requires the reading of the 'Holy Bible,' a Christian document, the practice . . . prefers the Christian religion. The record demonstrates that it was the intention of . . . the Commonwealth . . . to introduce a religious ceremony into the public schools of the Commonwealth. (201 F. Supp., at 819; quoted in )

Precedents for case


The Court explicitly upheld Engel v. Vitale
Engel v. Vitale
Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 , was a landmark United States Supreme Court case that determined that it is unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and require its recitation in public schools....

,
in which the Court ruled that the sanctioning of a prayer by the school amounted to a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment
First Amendment to the United States Constitution
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering...

 to the United States Constitution
United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...

, which states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The Abington court held that in organizing a reading of the Bible, the school was conducting "a religious exercise," and "that cannot be done without violating the 'neutrality' required of the State by the balance of power between individual, church and state that has been struck by the First Amendment" .

Over the previous two decades, the Supreme Court, by incorporating
Incorporation (Bill of Rights)
The incorporation of the Bill of Rights is the process by which American courts have applied portions of the U.S. Bill of Rights to the states. Prior to the 1890s, the Bill of Rights was held only to apply to the federal government...

 specific rights into the Due Process Clause
Due process
Due process is the legal code that the state must venerate all of the legal rights that are owed to a person under the principle. Due process balances the power of the state law of the land and thus protects individual persons from it...

 of the Fourteenth Amendment
Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of the Reconstruction Amendments.Its Citizenship Clause provides a broad definition of citizenship that overruled the Dred Scott v...

, had steadily increased the extent to which rights contained in United States Bill of Rights
United States Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights is the collective name for the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. These limitations serve to protect the natural rights of liberty and property. They guarantee a number of personal freedoms, limit the government's power in judicial and other proceedings, and...

 were applied against the states. Abington was a continuation of this trend with regard to the Establishment of Religion Clause of the First Amendment, and specifically built upon Supreme Court precedents in Cantwell v. Connecticut
Cantwell v. Connecticut
Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 , was a United States Supreme Court decision that incorporated the First Amendment's protection of religious free exercise.-Background:...

, Everson v. Board of Education
Everson v. Board of Education
Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court which applied the religion clauses in the country's Bill of Rights to state as well as federal law...

, and McCollum v. Board of Education
McCollum v. Board of Education
McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 , was a landmark 1948 United States Supreme Court case related to the power of a state to use its tax-supported public school system in aid of religious instruction...

.

Opinions


The Supreme Court granted certiorari
Certiorari
Certiorari is a type of writ seeking judicial review, recognized in U.S., Roman, English, Philippine, and other law. Certiorari is the present passive infinitive of the Latin certiorare...

 in order to settle the persistent and vigorous protests resulting from its previous decision in Engel v. Vitale
Engel v. Vitale
Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 , was a landmark United States Supreme Court case that determined that it is unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and require its recitation in public schools....

regarding religion in schools (White & Zimmerman, p. 70).

The decision


Clark continued that the Court was of the feeling that no matter the religious nature of the citizenry, the government at all levels, as required by the Constitution, must remain neutral in matters of religion "while protecting all, prefer[ring] none, and disparag[ing] none." The Court had clearly rejected "the contention by many that the Establishment Clause forbade only governmental preference of one faith over another" (Eastland, 1993, p. 59).

Citing Justice Hugo Black
Hugo Black
Hugo Lafayette Black was an American politician and jurist. A member of the Democratic Party, Black represented Alabama in the United States Senate from 1927 to 1937, and served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1937 to 1971. Black was nominated to the Supreme...

 in Torcaso v. Watkins, Justice Clark added, "We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person 'to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.'" Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs." Such prohibited behavior was that self-evident in the Pennsylvania law requiring Bible reading (and allowing recitation of the Lord's Prayer) in its public schools. The Court recognized the value of such ideal neutrality from lessons of history when government and religion were either fully fused or cooperative with one another and religious liberty was nonexistent or seriously curtailed.

William J. Brennan's concurrence


Justice Brennan filed a lengthy and historically significant concurrence
Concurrence
In Western jurisprudence, concurrence is the apparent need to prove the simultaneous occurrence of both actus reus and mens rea , to constitute a crime; except in crimes of strict liability...

, taking seventy-three pages to elaborate his ideas about what the Framers intended in the formation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, gauging the value of religion in our culture, reviewing legal precedents, and suggesting a course for future
Future
The future is the indefinite time period after the present. Its arrival is considered inevitable due to the existence of time and the laws of physics. Due to the nature of the reality and the unavoidability of the future, everything that currently exists and will exist is temporary and will come...

 church-state cases. Brennan felt the need to focus on the history of the Establishment Clause to counter numerous critics of the Court's Engel decision, who pointed out that prayer in public schools, as well as in many other areas of public life, was a longstanding practice going back to the framing of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. He professed to be aware of the "ambiguities in the historical record" and felt a modern-day interpretation of the First Amendment was warranted (Davis, 1991, p. 77). In defense of that approach, Brennan stated:
In answer to critics of a broad interpretation of the prohibitions against government in the realm of religion, Brennan said, "nothing in the text of the Establishment Clause supports the view that the prevention of the setting up of an official church was meant to be the full extent of the prohibitions against official involvements in religion".

In the third section of his exhaustive concurrence, Justice Brennan charted the course that led to the incorporation of the First Amendment's religion clauses by way of answering the charge of Abington Township's counsel that Pennsylvania's Bible reading statute was a state issue, outside the purview of the federal court system, including that of the Supreme Court. He labeled the daily recitals of the Lord's Prayer and reading of the Bible as "quite [clear] breaches of the command of the Establishment Clause". He noted the long history of such practices, even before the "founding of our Republic". Additionally, he did not neglect to mention that most of those who demanded reading of the Bible and prayer in schools were hoping to serve "broader goals than compelling formal worship of God or fostering church attendance". He cited the 1858 words of the Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction, who saw the Bible as aptly suited to "teaching the noblest principles of virtue, morality, patriotism, and good order".

Justice Brennan took great pains to also show that many states, such as South Dakota
South Dakota
South Dakota is a state located in the Midwestern region of the United States. It is named after the Lakota and Dakota Sioux American Indian tribes. Once a part of Dakota Territory, South Dakota became a state on November 2, 1889. The state has an area of and an estimated population of just over...

, New Hampshire
New Hampshire
New Hampshire is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. The state was named after the southern English county of Hampshire. It is bordered by Massachusetts to the south, Vermont to the west, Maine and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Canadian...

, Wisconsin
Wisconsin
Wisconsin is a U.S. state located in the north-central United States and is part of the Midwest. It is bordered by Minnesota to the west, Iowa to the southwest, Illinois to the south, Lake Michigan to the east, Michigan to the northeast, and Lake Superior to the north. Wisconsin's capital is...

, Ohio
Ohio
Ohio is a Midwestern state in the United States. The 34th largest state by area in the U.S.,it is the 7th‑most populous with over 11.5 million residents, containing several major American cities and seven metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 or more.The state's capital is Columbus...

 and Massachusetts
Massachusetts
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. It is bordered by Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the west, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the north; at its east lies the Atlantic Ocean. As of the 2010...

, had already enacted and revoked laws similar to Pennsylvania's by the first half of the twentieth century. In addition, many political leaders including attorneys general and presidents like Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th President of the United States as well as military commander during the Civil War and post-war Reconstruction periods. Under Grant's command, the Union Army defeated the Confederate military and ended the Confederate States of America...

 and Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States . He is noted for his exuberant personality, range of interests and achievements, and his leadership of the Progressive Movement, as well as his "cowboy" persona and robust masculinity...

 insisted that "matters of religion be left to family altars, churches and private schools" and "[It] is not our business to have the Protestant Bible or the Catholic Vulgate or the Talmud read in [public] schools" (though such statements on the part of Grant must be viewed on the backdrop of Grant's virulent anti-Catholicism, a spirit which drove many of the anti-Catholic 19th century Republican Party to champion laws sharply curbing public financing of religious practices out of fear of state financing of Catholic schools).

Brennan's concurrence also recognized the plurality of religious thought in the nation as basis enough for restriction of church and state relations. He cited this lack of appreciation of that pluralism
Religious pluralism
Religious pluralism is a loosely defined expression concerning acceptance of various religions, and is used in a number of related ways:* As the name of the worldview according to which one's religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth, and thus that at least some truths and true values...

 as the "basic flaw" of Pennsylvania's Bible reading statute and Abington Township's defense of it:

There are persons in every community—often deeply devout—to whom any version of the Judaeo-Christian Bible is offensive. There are others whose reverence for the Holy Scriptures demands private study or reflection and to whom public reading or recitation is sacrilegious.... To such persons it is not the fact of using the Bible in the public schools, nor the content of any particular version, that is offensive, but the manner in which it is used.

Potter Stewart's dissent


Justice Potter Stewart
Potter Stewart
Potter Stewart was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. During his tenure, he made, among other areas, major contributions to criminal justice reform, civil rights, access to the courts, and Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.-Education:Stewart was born in Jackson, Michigan,...

 filed the only dissent in the case. In it, he was critical of both the lower court
Lower court
A lower court is a court from which an appeal may be taken. In relation to an appeal from one court to another, the lower court is the court whose decision is being reviewed, which may be the original trial court or an appellate court lower in rank than the superior court which is hearing the...

 opinions and the decision the Supreme Court had reached regarding them. He wished to remand the case to lower courts for further proceedings.

Stewart had dissented in Engel v. Vitale and viewed the doctrine relied on in that case as implausible, given the long history of government religious practice in the United States, including the fact that the Supreme Court opens its own sessions with the declaration, "God Save this Honorable Court" and that Congress opens its sessions with prayers, among many other examples. Stewart believed that such practice fit with the nation's long history of permitting free exercise of religious practices, even in the public sphere.

He declared the cases consolidated with Schempp as "so fundamentally deficient as to make impossible an informed or responsible determination of the constitutional issues presented"—specifically, of whether the Establishment Clause was violated. As to the intent and scope of the religion clauses of the First Amendment:

It is, I think, a fallacious oversimplification to regard the [religion clauses] as establishing a single constitutional standard of "separation of church and state", which can be applied in every case to delineate the required boundaries between government and religion.... As a matter of history, the First Amendment was adopted solely as a limitation upon the newly created National Government. The events leading to its adoption strongly suggest that the Establishment Clause was primarily an attempt to insure that Congress not only would be powerless to establish a national church, but would also be unable to interfere with existing state establishments. ... So matters stood until the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, or more accurately, until this Court's decision in Cantwell....


He stated his agreement with the doctrine of the Fourteenth Amendment's embrace and application of the Bill of Rights, but pointed out the irony of such an amendment "designed to leave the States free to go their own way should now have become a restriction upon their autonomy" (Eastland, 1993, pp. 165).

Other critics of the Court's findings in Abington v. Schempp often quote the following excerpt from Justice Stewart's opinion:

If religious exercises are held to be an impermissible activity in schools, religion is placed in an artificial and state-created disadvantage.... And a refusal to permit religious exercises thus is seen, not as the realization of state neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism, or at least, as governmental support of the beliefs of those who think that religious exercises should be conducted only in private (Eastland, 1993, pp. 165).

Backlash


The public was divided in reaction to the Court's decision; the decision has sparked persistent and ongoing criticism from proponents of prayer in school. In 1964, Life magazine declared Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Madalyn Murray O'Hair was an American atheist activist and founder of the organization American Atheists and its president from 1963 to 1986. One of her sons, Jon Garth Murray, was the president of the organization from 1986 to 1995, while she remained de facto president during these nine years....

, the mother of the plaintiff in one of the cases, "the most hated woman in America." http://www.who2.com/madalynmurrayohair.html

Newspaper
Newspaper
A newspaper is a scheduled publication containing news of current events, informative articles, diverse features and advertising. It usually is printed on relatively inexpensive, low-grade paper such as newsprint. By 2007, there were 6580 daily newspapers in the world selling 395 million copies a...

s were no exception. The Washington Evening Star, for example, criticized the decision, declaring that "God and religion have all but been driven from the public schools. What remains? Will the baccalaureate service
Baccalaureate service
A baccalaureate service is a celebration which honors a graduating senior class from a college or high school...

 and Christmas carol
Christmas carol
A Christmas carol is a carol whose lyrics are on the theme of Christmas or the winter season in general and which are traditionally sung in the period before Christmas.-History:...

s be the next to go? Don't bet against it." In contrast, the New York Times was more accepting of the Court's ruling. The paper printed significant portions of the opinions with no significant comments, either supportive or critical. Opponents characterized the decision as the one which "kicked God and prayer out of the schools".

The views of various religious entities on the decision split between mainline Protestants and Jews, who in general strongly supported the decision, and evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, who strongly opposed the decision. Speaking from the conservative Protestant perspective, the Reverend Dr. Billy Graham said, "[i]n my opinion ... the Supreme Court ... is wrong. ... Eighty percent of the American people want Bible reading and prayer in the schools. Why should a majority be so severely penalized ...?" The mainline denominations, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church, registered less critical opinions of the verdict, in fact seeing it as a boon to religious freedom by its very limiting of governmental authority in the sphere of public schools.

Subsequent history


The United States Congress reacted to the decision by drafting over 150 resolutions to overturn it by amending the Constitution. Abington v. Schempp was used as precedent for similar cases like Board of Education v. Allen and Lemon v. Kurtzman
Lemon v. Kurtzman
Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 , was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Pennsylvania's 1968 Nonpublic Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which allowed the state Superintendent of Public Instruction to reimburse nonpublic schools for the salaries of teachers who...

in the decades that followed. The three part Lemon test had its basis in the jurisprudence of Abington v. Schempp. Under the test, the constitutionality of a given church-state law is weighed by three criteria: sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the government in religious activity.

See also

  • Edgerton Bible Case
    Edgerton Bible Case
    The Edgerton Bible Case was an important court case involving prayer in public schools in Wisconsin. In the early days of Edgerton, Wisconsin, it was common practice for public school teachers to read aloud from the King James Bible to their students...

  • Montgomery County, Pennsylvania
    Montgomery County, Pennsylvania
    Montgomery County is a county located in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, in the United States. As of 2010, the population was 799,874, making it the third most populous county in Pennsylvania . The county seat is Norristown.The county was created on September 10, 1784, out of land originally part...

  • List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 374

Further reading

  • Billy Graham voices shock over decision. (June 18, 1963). New York Times. p. 17.