Fifty years ago today, the US Supreme Court handed down their landmark decision Abington School District v. Schempp that struck down a Pennsylvania law that mandated Bible reading in the public schools. The case started with a protest in 1956 by then High School student Ellery Schempp. His case showed us the importance of dissent and that mandatory Bible reading, in public schools, infringes on religious liberty. It’s great that Dr. Schempp is still active in the struggle to protect the 1st Amendment and he is definitely a Humanist you should know.
Pennsylvania law required that “At least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day. Any child shall be excused from such Bible reading, or attending such Bible reading, upon the written request of his parent or guardian.” In 1956, Schempp, a student at Abington High School, brought a Qur’an to homeroom and read from it as a protest against the policy and the related practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer. He was sent to the principal’s office and, with the assistance of his parents and the ACLU, sued the school. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was decided in his favor five years after Schempp’s high school graduation.
Despite letters of “disrecommendation” written by Abington High’s principal to every college Schempp applied to, Schempp went on to earn B.S. degrees in physics and geology from Tufts University and a Ph.D. in physics from Brown University. His doctoral research was in using nuclear magnetic resonance as a way of exploring chemical bonds, which contributed to the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). In 2002, Abington High School elected him to its hall of fame for his achievements in physics, with no mention of his role in Abington. Schempp began his acceptance speech, “I never thought they’d invite me back here.”
Dr. Schempp is a member of the American Humanist Association and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He is on the Advisory Board of the Secular Student Alliance and the Secular Coalition for America. He has been honored with many awards over the years including the 1996 Religious Liberty Award from Americans United.