Author, experts examine legacy of school-prayer ruling
On Nov. 26, 1956, student Ellery Schempp went to his small Pennsylvania town’s high school with a copy of the Quran stuck in the leather binder he carried to class. After Schempp arrived in his homeroom, a voice on the P.A. system began reading Bible verses. Schempp instead silently read his Quran — inadvertently sparking a controversy that would eventually be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court’s 8-1 decision in Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963) prohibited school-sponsored prayer in public schools and remains a cornerstone of students’ religious liberty.
Stephen D. Solomon, an associate professor of First Amendment law at New York University, wrote about the Schempp case in his book Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer. On March 4, Solomon was the moderator of a panel discussion about religious freedom in public schools, held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Solomon presented the story of Schempp’s protest against a Pennsylvania law that required that at least 10 verses from the Bible — often including the Lord’s Prayer — be read at the opening of each day in the state’s public schools. Following his introduction, Solomon brought the panel on stage to begin a discussion on the impact Schempp has had on contemporary culture.
Panelists participating in the First Amendment Center program “Godless Public Schools — Fact or Fiction?” were Jeremy Gunn of the American Civil Liberties Union; Melissa Rogers, a visiting professor at Wake University Divinity School; Colby May, senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice; and Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.
The Schempp case affected many aspects of how religion is handled in public schools. The panelists noted that the major distinctions made between “teaching religion and teaching about religion” in public schools, as well as “government-sponsored prayer and prayer on government property,” can be traced back to the Schempp decision.
“One of the legacies of Schempp, I think, is that it has encouraged and supported people who want to take a different view of public education, in other words go beyond the idea that you either impose religion in public schools or you keep it all out,” said Haynes. “There are those who argue Schempp really sets us up to get it right for the first time.”
How schools can “get it right,” however, is an ongoing question both in terms of constitutionality and general appropriateness. Haynes suggested that “the trend is the more arm’s length the school is from the students’ speech, the more likely it will be upheld as constitutional.” One instance of student religious speech trumping censorship was a case mentioned by the ACLU’s Gunn, in which a student’s religious remarks in the school’s yearbook were removed. After it was found that the student’s right to free speech had been abridged, the comment was printed on a sticker and included with the finished yearbook.
The panelists said that although most groups agree about the broad strokes of religion in public schools, the details have become battlegrounds in the debate on religious freedom in the classroom. Solomon specifically pointed to the question of whether schools should accommodate student religious practices by, for example, providing foot baths or separate rooms for prayer for Muslim students during the school day. The panel agreed that accommodation is permissible under the establishment cause and is central to religious expression in America. Haynes and May warned, however, against what Haynes called “school entanglement with religion,” including situations where schools are spending money and building new areas for accommodation instead of simply offering existing facilities for extra-curricular religious practice.
The panel also addressed taxpayer-funded charter schools, emphasizing that as public institutions, they must follow the same rules in terms of religious liberty as regular public schools. The panel was referring to a case in Minnesota where a charter school advertised itself as a “Muslim school” that ostensibly taught religion as part of its curriculum. Haynes said that when religious schools take public funding, they lose their religious identity.
The bigger issue for schools is finding the fine line between the separation of church and state and students’ freedom of religious expression, said the ACLJ’s May.
“It’s easy for us to suggest that there’s this reasonable, dispassionate way to deal with this,” he said, “but when you’re on the ground and you’re this pressured principal or teacher or administrator, [you may think,] ‘Oh my gosh, if I do this I’m going to get sued by the ACLU and if I do this I’m going to get sued by the ACLJ, and I don’t know what to do, so I don’t want to do anything!’ So, you feel very sympathetic towards them.”
Lance Conzett is a senior majoring in journalism at Belmont University in Nashville.